"A Prophet," from French director Jacques Audiard, opens with 19-year-old Malik El Djebena being sent to Parisian jail for six years for a string of stupid, youthful indiscretions. What follows is his riveting, treacherous climb up the ladder of the mafia that controls the prison.
Tahar Rahim gives a quiet, steady performance as El Djebena, who straddles both the Arab and Corsican gangs that dominate the prison, managing to earn a wary trust from both camps.
El Djebena's manipulation of both friends and enemies is remarkably measured, as he manages to stay three steps ahead of not just his fellow prisoners, but the audience as well. Each time you think he's finally made a fatal miscalculation, he comes out on top yet again -- though admittedly, with at least one moment of monumental luck..
Veteran actor Niels Arestup as Cesar Luciani is a sharp contrast to Rahim. His Luciani is all muscle and bombast -- he's a blunt instrument hammering through every obstacle in his path. But Arestup maintains just enough tension on his own leash to make it work, his hubris an ever present danger to his grip in the prison.
Audiard's use of music throughout is fantastic, not just in his selection, but his deployment. "Corner of My Room," a Dylan-esque foot-stomper by Turner Cody, and "Bridging the Gap," by Nas, are each used during the types of lengthy montages that often grinds even good films to a halt. But Audiard keeps his camera and the plot moving, while he lets the songs reflect on the action, rather than narrate.
And "Mack the Knife," which has been used far too many times in film, is the perfect coda, with Jimmie Dale Gilmore's reading of the Bertolt Brecht classic slowing it to a languid pace that matches the dreamlike end of the film.
The film asks a lot of questions about the nature of identity and race, masters and servants, and morality -- and it has plenty to say about each subject, but doesn't insult your intelligence with answers. Audiard leaves you to come to your own conclusions.
After wowing audineces at last year's Cannes, American audiences have waited too long for "A Prophet," which is rightly in the running for Best Foreign Film at next month's Oscars. Don't be put off by the 155-minute running time, the story moves with nary a misstep, and the acting and directing are top-notch, placing "A Prophet" firmly in both the gangster and prison film pantheons. It's a truly great film, one of the best of 2009 -- or 2010.