Agreeing at the insistence of a Corsican mob boss to suck and then slash a fellow inmate, newly jailed Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) — poor, illiterate, a "dirty Arab" in the prison's racist pecking order — gets what's coming to him, but in a good way. Indeed, crime pays in A Prophet, the Gallic gangster movie whose armed assault of film fests, awards shows, and critics' polls has made it the most widely valued French underworld thriller since the '60s reign of tough-guy auteur Jean-Pierre Melville.
Does director Jacques Audiard deserve his new status as a made man? Set mostly in prison and named for a wiseguy in the making, A Prophet affects an almost spiritual transcendence, no matter what nasty service Audiard's self-made hero has to perform in and out of the clink. As per modern gangster-flick formula, the appeal of upward mobility — the thug's, if not the filmmaker's — trumps any and all ethical considerations, particularly in this economy.
Sold to the global arthouse market as the "French Scorsese," Audiard does know his genre. A Prophet, the director has said, is the "anti-Scarface." Thus jittery El Djebena carves up a snitch in the first reel and goes out stylishly in the last. In between, he's incrementally rewarded by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) — the French jailhouse Don Vito Corleone, you could say (complete with as much Brando-esque gravitas as can be stuffed into XL sweatpants). El Djebena matures before our eyes, learning the underworld ropes in the increasingly pokerfaced manner of Vito's kid, Michael. Whatever suspense A Prophet musters in its rather protracted running time involves our predictable unease about how far the student may be willing to go for — or against — his master.
Audiard — son of a famous director, devoted pupil of wizened kingpins from Coppola to Mann — is engaged in a filial relationship of his own here. How far is he willing to go for his masters? On one hand, A Prophet has everything: hash deals gone bad, a wicked shootout in close quarters, a thug called "the Egyptian," an inmate's cancerous testicles, ultimate Redemption. On the other, the film is deficient in form and content — not naturalistic so much as neutered, less revisionist than rote. Audiard may have had the stones to tweak Jim Toback's Fingers in '05 (with the racy The Beat That My Heart Skipped), but here, his approach to cinematic '70s-isms is slavish — and downright corny. Visited by the ghost of his first victim (a friendly ghost, as it happens), El Djebena gets time off for "good" behavior, his day-tripping by train and plane set to Alexandre Desplat's soaring score. This jailbird can fly!
A Prophet gets a much-needed hint of ambiguity in the lead turn by Rahim, an earthy-looking non-pro who sometimes seems to be channeling Enrique Irazoqui's lumpen prole Christ from The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The killer prophet has a premonition or two, rises to the tune of Nas's hip-hop riff on "Mannish Boy," gets the chance to whack a boss on the outside, starts calling shots of his own, and, after serving years for a crime he may or may not have committed, remains a cipher. (Symbolism alert: The mystery man is shown struggling to comprehend the word "canard.")
Equal parts French Caucasian and Arab, El Djebena waffles between the prison's Corsican and Muslim tribes until two and a half hours are up and Audiard has to settle on a message. Is A Prophet, as argued elsewhere, a Sarkozyist parable of the Arab Frenchman's new juice? Probably, but that sure isn't the reason why the movie has collected hyperbolic acclaim from here to Hollywood. Audiard's shrewdly determined redemption conceit requires his multi-ethnic gang war to resolve into some marketably "universal" truths, chiefly a mannish boy's right to accumulate and propagate. As Tony Montana would say, for the price of a movie ticket, the world is yours.