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TERRY GROSS, host:

The French director Jacques Audiard won the grand prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for his drama "A Prophet," which has also been nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

The film is set in a French prison largely divided along racial lines between violent gangs of Corsicans and Arabs.

Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Jacques Audiard is drawn to the bleakest scenarios imaginable, yet something in him fights against gloom and doom. His terrific 2005 film "The Beat My Heart Skipped" was a remake of James Toback's 1978 "Fingers," which ended in its hero's damnation. But Audiard embraced the romance at the story's core and gave the man a way out.

Now, in his engrossing prison drama "A Prophet," Audiard works with a plot that vaguely resembles Brian De Palma's splattery, cocaine-fueled "Scarface," about an immigrant at the bottom of the food chain who seizes power through violence. But Audiard regards his hero differently. He doesn't celebrate the man, but he doesn't damn him, either.

The movie opens the way many tragedies close, with a character forced to choose between his life and his soul. He is Malik played by Tahar Rahim, a 19-year-old French Arab sentenced to six years for assaulting a policeman under circumstances that remain unclear. When he enters the prison he's tremulous, visibly frightened.

Almost at once he's set upon by the most powerful inmate, an aging Corsican mobster named Cesar played by Niels Arestrup, who orders him to seduce and slit the throat of another French Arab about to testify at a trial. If Malik refuses, he'll die. If he agrees, his survival is ensured. Still, he tries everything to keep from killing a fellow Arab, from blowing the whistle to getting thrown into solitary confinement.

Audiard's camera is extraordinarily intimate: We hover just above Malik's shoulder as he finally acquiesces, as he learns, dribbling blood, to conceal a straight razor in his mouth and to leap from his knees and swing for the jugular. The man marked for death proves to be kindly and attentive, and the violence, when it comes, is clumsy, garish, gruelingly prolonged. Malik grew up in state institutions and is nonreligious, culturally unaffiliated, but now more than ever he's a man without a country. The Corsicans protect him, but call him a dirty Arab and use him as a servant. The Arabs shun him as a Corsican.

Then, for the more than two hours that remain of "A Prophet," the illiterate Malik learns to read not just books, but the power structure of the prison and the world at large. It's a strange, gripping, sometimes confusing journey, since Malik's features harden and Rahim's performance becomes more internal.

His scenes with the marvelous Arestrup have dizzying crosscurrents. Cesar regularly slaps Malik around, yet as the majority of Corsicans are released from the prison repatriated under new French laws he's dependent on the young Arab as a kind of surrogate son. Meanwhile, with stealth and subtlety, Malik, this man without a country, begins to correct - sometimes brutally - the imbalance of his life and forge a new identity as a Muslim gangster.

"A Prophet" isn't another of those washed-out brownish prison pictures. The colors are warm, the vistas wide. Often, almost matter-of-factly, the boundary disappears between the real and supernatural. The film is sometimes hard to follow. When Malik is permitted to leave the prison for 12 hours at a time and begins to form alliances with Italian, Corsican and Egyptian gangsters, you can't always tell whom he's playing off whom. That's the price you sometimes pay, though, for filmmakers who zig and zag and resist clicking into established grooves. Even when you don't know what Malik is doing, you know he knows.

The title "A Prophet" is ambiguous, since Malik preaches nothing. But his rise is a testament to self-reliance in a malignant universe. The grim central irony is a classic gangster-movie manifesto: It's only via prison that its hero finds existential freedom.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter and friend us on Facebook at nprfreshair.

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Im Terry Gross.

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