Given his fixation on the tensions between interior and exterior spaces, as well as on domineering father-son dynamics and masculine identity development, it's only natural that Jacques Audiard's A Prophet is situated primarily within a roughneck French prison. Another of the director's scintillating crime sagas, this jail-set story centers on Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a French Muslim who enters his new home to serve six years for scuffling with cops and promptly discovers that his plans to lay low and quietly ride out his sentence are hopeless. Upon his arrival, Malik is approached by Corsican inmates—led by boss César Luciani (Niels Arestrup)—who've determined that his ethnicity and lack of inside allegiances make him the perfect candidate to carry out the assassination of a Muslim witness temporarily staying at the facility. Thus Audiard's two-hour-plus character study-cum-genre thriller is set in motion, a familiar tale of illicit enterprise that's enlivened by taut, gritty filmmaking punctuated by flashes of poeticism, and which soon comes to double as both a loose allegory for Arab ascendancy in France and a micro-portrait of criminal (and general) power-structure mechanisms.
As it lays out the path by which Malik rises from rudderless nobody to dominant boss, A Prophet doesn't reimagine the prison movie so much as simply reenergize it through painstaking attention to particulars. Through the inclusion of offhand specifics, be it the laundromat air-blowing machinery that Malik uses to dry inmates' jeans, the loaves of bread he habitually serves his Corsican benefactors, or the means by which he smuggles drugs into the prison via a network of sleights of hand involving conjugal visits and the cafeteria staff, Audiard creates intimate immersion in his claustrophobic locale. Shot in bleak, hard grays that press down upon its inhabitants, it's a place at once deadening and yet, for Malik, enlightening. Barely literate and largely uneducated, Malik schools himself in French and economics while inside, an education matched by the criminal and social kind he receives at the side of César. An abusive surrogate paterfamilias (embodied by Arestrup with the same wily, intimidating menace he brought to his daddy dearest in The Beat That My Heart Skipped), César slowly integrates Malik into his operation but always makes sure—as do César's loyal Corsican henchmen—to let him know that he's a "dirty Arab" and fit for little more than cleaning, cooking, and errand-running slave duty.
Malik's uneasy position inside the clink is compounded by the fact that Islamic inmates treat him as an untrustworthy Corsican lackey. However, despite the nominal back-to-the-Muslim-brotherhood trajectory upon which Malik eventually embarks, Audiard's socio-political commentary consistently remains secondary to the dictates of energized scripting, a focus enabled by the director's conception of his protagonist as driven not by ideology but survival instincts and individual ambition. Allegiances are determined by self-serving logic, a situation that mitigates Malik's function as a stand-in for all French Arabs and maintains concentration on the story's examination of power-play scheming and maneuvering. By analytically burrowing into the criminal apparatus and its myriad human components—including Malik's cancer-stricken right-hand man Ryad (Adel Bencherif)—A Prophet flirts with glorifying violence in the same way that its consideration of Malik's condition turns him empathetic. Still, Audiard is too canny to indulge in crass crime celebration on a grand or personal scale. And his film profits, in terms of generating engaging suspense, from his refusal to sentimentalize Malik's harsh pragmatism nor to gloss over the nastiness of the joint's brutality, which reaches a live-wire peak during a jagged, ugly sequence in which Malik—overcoming both nerves and moral uncertainty—carries out César's order to kill.
That bloody encounter is A Prophet's apex, but Audiard rarely lets the action's verve flag, and his expressionistic flourishes—Malik's hallucinatory chats with the Arab he killed, a fierce, smeary dream of fleeing deer, smudgy iris shots of clasping hands—provide lyrical jolts that help flesh out Malik's emotional and psychological state. In spite of his character's single-minded nature, newcomer Rahim proves a commanding lead, his turn a minor triumph of silent expressiveness over expository showiness. Like Audiard's shiv-sharp cuts and aesthetic interplay between light and dark, Rahim's performance brings vigor to the material's tried-and-true genre construction. Malik and César's symbolic father-son schism may be somewhat conventional, as are its interior-exterior conflicts, in which Malik pines for and (when on day leave from the prison) basks in the outdoor pleasures of a beach's cool waves, and yet increasingly comes to define himself via his inside world's governing masculine codes. Nonetheless, maintaining emphasis on his milieu's rugged inner workings, Audiard eschews predictable plotting and rote preaching at every turn, right up to a conclusion that invites nominal happily-ever-after readings (both about underworld ascendancy and Muslim cultural loyalties) while despairingly suggesting, in an ambiguous final shot, that one can never truly escape prison life, or the monster it makes you.