"A Prophet," a big winner at Cannes and a Best Foreign Language Film nominee, is unlike an American prison drama. It's rambling and episodic, and some viewers may find their mind wandering. But it's got a great, authentic energy as it provides a roving-eye view of life in a rough French prison.
When he first arrives, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is a callow 19-year-old punk who finds himself pushed and pulled between Italian gangsters and Muslim toughs. By the end of this 2½-hour journey, he's got his hands on the puppet strings.
It's almost like watching a latter-day Michael Corleone transform himself into a hardened killer in a walled-off multicultural landscape of shifting loyalties and deadly intrigue.
Throughout, Malik remains something of a cipher. We never learn what crime earned him a six-year prison sentence. Or why he has a web of scars on his face and torso. During his arrival interview, a guard asks him about his religion, ethnicity, dietary needs, etc. Malik's response is a noncommittal shrug that he's "nothing special."
But because he speaks Arabic as well as French, he's recruited by the Corsican mob to assassinate Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab who's slated to testify at an upcoming trial. Threatened with being killed or become a murderer, Malik goes along with the plot, with horridly bloody consequences.
But then a strange thing happens: Reyeb starts appearing to Malik in visions, befriending him and counseling him what to do in the increasingly complex game of cat and mouse being played for high stakes behind bars.
Malik also meets a Muslim prisoner, Ryad (Adel Bencherif), learns more about his culture and feels drawn to his newfound brethren. But the Arabs reject him as a tool of the Corsicans, while the Corsicans treat him more like a servant than a comrade.
Niels Arestrup gives a terrific performance as Cesar Luciani, the silver-haired leader of the Corsicans. Although he's old, tubby and physically vulnerable, Cesar rules the prisoners and prison guards alike through a combination of charisma and intimidation.
Cesar initially treats Malik as just another disposable pawn, but over time he comes to trust the younger man, even seeing a little of himself in Malik. After a few years, Malik becomes eligible for single-day releases, which he uses to carry out errands for Cesar -- and do a little side business for himself building up a drug ring both inside and outside the prison walls.
This is where director and co-writer Jacques Audiard goes a bit astray. These outside jaunts begin to blur into each other, always seeming to end with a gun to Malik's head, as Cesar has once again put him in danger without any prior warning. It's no surprise that his fear for the crime boss begins to subside.
Despite the wildly different subject matter, "A Prophet" has a similar texture to another French film, "The Class" -- also nominated for an Oscar, one year earlier. It seems less like a story that's being staged for our benefit than a real-life encounter we just happen to be witnessing.
So there's no convenient story arcs or tidy plot resolutions. The very unevenness of the film is also what bestows its gritty power.