A young Arab man shows up in prison, doing six years for a crime that’s never explained, but doesn’t need to be.  He’s a loner, both inside and outside prison.  He’s illiterate, having dropped out of school at age 11, and has been in and out of juvenile detention since then.

He’s harassed at the prison repeatedly.  He gets his shoes stolen, and he gets offered drugs for sex.  But an opportunity comes up.  The Corsicans need him.  “Kill this man, or I’ll kill you,” Luciani tells the young Arab.  Luciani means business.  The Corsicans run the prison.

The young Arab man reluctantly agrees to do so.  The kill is not clean: it is messy, brutal, rough.  But he does it.  And now he’s protected.  And now he rises.

Thus is the tale of Malik El Djabena in A Prophet, an excellent and explosively gritty film.  The movie at heart is a crime drama set within prison walls, and the Godfather movies serve as a good inspiration for such.  Djabena starts as a loner, but with killing the witness, he finds himself in new and better positions of power.  It’s a slow process, one that takes his six years in jail to complete, but he does it masterfully.

He’s intelligent and quick to learn.  He starts classes at the prison and learns to read and write.  He learns Corsican unbeknown-est to everyone but Luciani, and he uses that to his advantage.  He becomes his eyes and ears.

He meets people in prison as well: Ryad, a fellow Muslim who tries to get Malik in with the other Muslims (the Muslims disown him for walking with the Corsicans).  He meets a drug running gypsy as well in prison and learns about a secret stash from him.  Malik gets prison leave as well: twelve-hour days to head out into the world to find something work to do when he does get out of prison.  Luciani owns his prison leave, but Malik has other intentions.

This is a long movie (nearly 150 minutes long), but well worth it.  It’s meticulously crafted, showing the transformation of Malik.  Take a look at the first kill (the one established in the trailer): he’s hesitant to do so, but he knows that it’s kill or be killed, so he knows he must do so.  The second time he kills isn’t until close to the end, but this time it’s different: there’s a certain thrill he gets when he does this.  The smile on his face, the relaxation, then the sudden adrenaline rush to complete the task.  He’s no longer timid.  He wants it.  He has it.

The final two scenes conclude the overall transformation.  I won’t mention what happens, but I’m sure you’ll know if you’ve seen other slow building crime dramas.

I seem to have left out the performances.  Everyone is generally quite good, though the best is left for Niels Arestrup, who plays Cesar Luciani.  He’s a godfather type of sorts, quite and reserved, but always with an anger deep within him.  He lulls you into a false sense of security before striking.  Arestrup plays him perfectly.  He’s worked with the director Audiard before, in The Beat That My Heart Skipped.  They know what to do and they work together well.

Tahar Rahim plays Malik El Djabena.  He’s a relatively new face to French cinema (this is his first leading role), which works in his favor here.  He’s able to pull off the role excellently.  He often doesn’t say much, at least around the Corsicans.  He lets his body language speak for him when words don’t.  He’s menacing when he needs to be.  But then again, he learned from the best.

Such a great film.  This deserves to be seen repeatedly.