The story is familiar: A scared young kid gets incarcerated for a minor crime and is absorbed into a prison system divided by race and gangs, where he really learns how to be a crook. What distinguishes Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is the attention to detail. Tahar Rahim stars as a shaggy, skittish young Muslim who becomes an errand boy behind bars for a Corsican mob boss. As the kid takes on more responsibility—and advances his criminal career during furloughs—Audiard dwells on the mechanics of prison life, as well as how the naïve Rahim responds to his changing status. A Prophet documents how the machines in the prison laundry work, and the importance of daily baguette distribution, but it also covers Rahim’s reaction to his first plane ride, and his first view of the ocean. This is as much a coming-of-age picture as it is an object lesson in how a wayward youth finds his place in the underworld.
Of course, Audiard doesn’t neglect the bloody fray. A Prophet kicks into high gear early, when Rahim is asked to hide a blade in his mouth and assassinate a thug who’s arranged to have sex with him. Rahim’s inexperience ratchets up the tension, and carries through much of the next two hours, as he studies his bosses and tries to strike out on his own, always aware that he’s an outsider in his adopted culture, and that every advancement could be a trap in disguise. A Prophet could be read as a commentary on how French society deals with immigrants, allowing them into the fold only so long as they’re willing to be exploited, then getting upset when they circumvent the system and make their own way. Mainly, though, this is a well-told pulp story, packed with memorable characters and incidents, and one that deals smartly with the realities of large- and small-scale lawbreaking. A Prophet has been compared to American TV series like Oz for its episodic plot and large cast, but it’s more like a Gallic Goodfellas: thoroughly absorbing, exciting, even poetic. It’s a full evening’s entertainment.