A Prophet admirably ruthless

Actor Tahir Rahim gripping in French prison drama

A taut prison drama by Jacques Audiard A Prophet may have recently been edged out for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film but it’s already enjoyed a long valedictory lap since its première at Cannes last May. European critics were especially impressed to see Audiard — a crime-flick specialist of considerable distinction — venture into the big house a site seldom explored by French directors. Here on the other side of the pond viewers may be more likely to compare A Prophet’s depiction of power struggles behind bars and in the wider criminal underworld with Oz and The Wire and find it less satisfying than those beefy TV serials.

One thing that both sides should appreciate is the gripping lead performance by Tahar Rahim as Malik an initially nervous newbie who proves to be an avid student of prison politics. He invites the ire of his fellow French Arab inmates when he allies himself with the Corsican gangsters who run the joint. Indeed mob boss César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) takes an almost paternal interest in the lad after Malik proves his worth by accomplishing his first assignment: carrying out a hit on a cellmate.

As Malik is entrusted with more responsibilities the real question is whether his newfound ambitions will get the better of him. Either way he demonstrates great savvy as he takes advantage of the shifting balance of power among the multicultural array of heavies inside and outside the prison walls.

Though most of A Prophet’s contents are pleasingly tough and terse the more mystical elements — like Malik’s visits from the pesky ghost of his first victim as well as the strange flair for premonitions that’s indicated by the movie’s title — are better suited to artier Audiard efforts such as The Beat That My Heart Skipped . An overextended final act also weakens the cumulative impact but on the whole A Prophet is admirably ruthless about achieving its own ends.