Not long before a razor slices into his neck and sends blood -- and his life force -- squirting and burbling away, an Arab prisoner gives 19-year-old Malik El Djebena some solid advice.
It's not too late to learn to read and write with proficiency. "The idea is to leave here a little smarter," he tells Malik, who takes that suggestion to heart in ways no one anticipates in "A Prophet."
One of five Oscar nominees for best foreign language film, "A Prophet" allows us to watch Malik (Tahar Rahim) mature, harden and ever so slowly and smartly shift the balance of power as if it were the scales of justice. One misstep could cost him his life; many shrewd calculations could return it to him.
When the movie opens, Malik is 19 years old, sentenced to six years in a French prison and without allies inside or outside of the prison.
4 stars = Outstanding
- Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup.
- Rating: R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material. In French, Arabic and Corsican with English subtitles.
He is an easy target for the predatory Corsican prisoners, led by the white-haired Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who ask Malik, "You think you can last here without protection?" It is clear he cannot.
It's survival of the fiercest and Malik is faced with this choice, no choice at all: Kill a short-timer waiting to testify in a trial or be killed himself.
Malik becomes a gofer to the Corsicans, for whom he will never be more than a "dirty Arab." And yet the Muslims consider him a Corsican, leaving him in a no-man's land where he must keep his own counsel, forge select friendships and keep learning -- language, economics and the politics of prison life.
As Malik ages, the stakes and the danger keep spiking in this excellent drama from director Jacques Audiard, who creates a prison that is anything but claustrophobic; it whirrs with activity, violence or the threat of it and strategizing worthy of a chess champion. Life outside represents liberation ... and temptation.
The R-rated "Prophet" is a long movie -- 149 minutes -- but it steeps you in Malik's life. It has so much ground to cover that it needs that much time to tell the story, partly written by Mr. Audiard.
In late February, "The Prophet" won nine Cesar Awards (France's top honors), including French film of the year, director and both best actor and breakthrough performance for Mr. Rahim.
He delivers a sly, satisfying turn as Malik. His face becomes a scarred battlefield and his hair changes but it's the way he carries himself, and a smile in one key scene, that telegraphs an internal shift. As Cesar, Mr. Arestrup is a mobster worthy of an episode of "The Sopranos."
Mr. Audiard ("The Beat That My Heart Skipped," "Read My Lips") has said the title "acts as a sort of injunction, moving people to consider something which isn't necessarily developed in the film -- namely that we're dealing with a little prophet, a new prototype of a guy."
He originally wanted a French equivalent of the Bob Dylan song title "Gotta Serve Somebody" (with its lyrics You're gonna have to serve somebody/Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you're gonna have to serve somebody). Without an easy translation, he stuck with "A Prophet."
Mr. Audiard injects some mystical elements, haunting and providential, into his story and allows us to root for his youthful hero no matter what he does. Malik is a self-made man and we are willing witness to the making.
Opens today at the Regent Square Theater in Edgewood.
Contact movie editor Barbara Vancheri at email@example.com or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies.