'A Prophet': In Prison, A Teenager Grows Up Fast

Tahar Rahim as Malik

Survival Until He's Fit: Newly imprisoned Malik (Tahar Rahim) looks to a veteran gangster for strategies that'll keep him alive. Jacques Audiard's film is a contender for the foreign-language film Oscar. Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics

A Prophet

  • Director: Jacques Audiard
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 155 minutes
Rated R: strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material.

With: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, and Hichem Yacoubi

(Recommended)

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A Prophet is part prison movie, part crime story, part intense personal drama. It's also an answered prayer if you believe that using modern touches to bring new life to old-fashioned movies makes for the most compelling kind of cinema.

The film's protagonist is a rootless young Arab named Malik who arrives at a French prison at age 19 to do a six-year stretch. Friendless, barely literate and highly vulnerable in the savage, Balkanized prison environment, Malik gains our sympathy because of the open, vulnerable demeanor of young actor Tahar Rahim.

If Malik is at the bottom of the prison pyramid, a veteran Corsican gangster named Cesar is at the very top. This is a brutally violent man with the dead eyes and quick-strike instincts of a cobra. He's terrifying.

The story of A Prophet is the violent tale of what happens to Malik during his years inside as he navigates the equivalent of a post-graduate course in criminal behavior. Cesar functions as both mentor and slave master to the young man, taking him under his wing but holding him at contemptuous arm's length because he is an Arab. The film deftly echoes The Godfather saga, if it were playing out in an alternate universe where Don Vito Corleone matches wits with his own son Michael.

Director Jacques Audiard has a gift for emotionally powerful storytelling, so A Prophet catches us up completely in Malik's quest to come into his own. To borrow a marketing phrase from another, very different film, A Prophet really is a movie that reminds you why you love the movies. Especially movies like this one. (Recommended)

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