Prison filmsat least ones where nobody escapesare usually a drag. If my failed attempt at watching HBOs Oz proved anything, its that we each have our own tolerance level for grim incarceration hopelessness, forcible sexual assaults and shivvings in the yard. And so I settled into Jacques Audiards A Prophet with familiar hesitation.

Winner of the Grand Prize at last years Cannes Film Festival and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, the movie stars Tahar Rahim as Malik, an illiterate, thuggish Arab tossed in the clink for reasons only vaguely mentioned. As is the fate of most inmates, hes instantly bullied and brutalized by the dehumanizing prison system and his casually savage peers. But after arousing the attentions of a slippery snitch in the shower, Malik is corralled by a ruthless Corsican gang who make him an offer he cant refuse. His admirer is due to deliver testimony in an upcoming mob trial, so Malik is ordered to kill him.

So far, so despairing. Were told next to nothing of the characters background, but Rahims empathetic performance wins us over, as Malik works every angle imaginable trying to find a way out of murdering this guy without ending up on a slab himself. The kid is nothing if not sly, and a fast learner to boot.

A Prophet becomes fascinating when it veers away from your typical prison-life misery-porn and turns into a distorted Horatio Alger story. Its a sick joke of an immigration tale of upward mobility. Relying on his wits and adaptability, Malik maneuvers his way into the good graces of Corsican kingpin Csar Luciani (the excellent Niels Arestrup) and ekes out a living as the house-boy for the gangster crew that rules the prison, learning to read, biding his time and picking up tips.

Times are changing, and these days the old-school mafiosos are finding themselves outnumbered by a new generation of street toughs, most of whom have the audacity to be Muslim! Audiards playing on Frances tumultuous ethnic divide, and the thrill of A Prophet is watching Malik soak up information like a sponge, absorbing the power and influence of organized crime, then breaking demographic barriers to become a smoother, more manipulative criminal. Hes a Michael Corleone for our new post-racial eraa Scarface Obama.

Apart from working for the Corsicans, Malik sets up a small drug-running operation of his own, one with serious growth potential. A Prophet is the kind of movie that lingers on how things work, with long stretches of its two-and-a-half-hour running time devoted to the ins and outs of illegal operations, smuggling secrets and complex networks of underworld power. Its a nifty way to keep us in the protagonists shoes, as were learning the ropes along with him, identifying perhaps a bit too much with a guy you wouldnt ever want to meet.

With his banged-up face and pathetic moustache, Malik is nobodys idea of suave, and yet the performance grows on you as the movie chugs along. Rahim is strangely recessive for a leading man, and Audiard utilizes that secretive quality to his advantage. You can see that hes always thinking and working toward a plan, but the actor is never going let us in on exactly what.

Hes so good that we didnt need the fantasy sequences, in which Malik is haunted by the taunting apparitions of a victim. Its a hacky device to signify a guilt thats already plain to see in Rahims forlorn eyes.

Luckily Audiard seems to tire of the conceit, which vanishes long before the thrilling final segmenta Machiavellian collection of double-crosses culminating in the best white-knuckle assassination scene since Spielbergs Munich . Maliks cagey manipulations pay off with such perversely crowd-pleasing efficiency, its tempting to applaud.

Yet A Prophet s brilliant closing shot hints at something deeper, framing our hero in something like a parade of his newfound power and influence. But a telephoto lens gives the image an eerie compression, hinting at consequences lurking just over his shoulder.

Director: Jacques Audiard

Trivia: To guarantee authenticity of the prison experience, Jacques Audiard hired former convicts to advise on the set.

Running time: 155 minutes

Grade: B+


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