Malik (Tahar Rahim) is so young and naïve when he's first brought to the French prison where he's to serve six years that he tries to hide a banknote in his sneakers. The guards immediately find it and confiscate it, of course, and he's pitched into the general population, where fellow inmates soon steal the sneakers themselves, right off his feet. But as French director Jacques Audiard's 2009 film A Prophet (Sony DVD and Blu-ray) unspools, Malik learns. The story of his education makes for perhaps the best crime film since Goodfellas.
Often Malik learns the hard way. The prison is run from the inside by an arm of the Corsican mob, led by Cesar (Niels Arestrup), a watery-eyed old gangster with a bulldog's pugnacious jaw. Soon, Cesar presents Malik with a brutal ultimatum: Kill Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab witness being held at the prison, or Cesar and the Corsicans will kill him. In a genre where murder is often played fast and cheap, Audiard's depiction of Malik's anxious blooding is measured out in agonizing, intimate detail, and the act haunts Malik, literally, for the rest of the film. But after that, he's in—sort of. Cesar and the Corsicans protect him and allow him to sweep up and make coffee, but as an Arab, he's only a convenient functionary. Meanwhile, the other Arabs at the prison will have nothing to do with him because he's with the Corsicans. De facto orphan Malik, for his part, always protests to anyone who asks that he's not with the Corsicans or with the Arabs—he's out for himself. And as A Prophet proceeds, the truth of that comes to pass.
In the early going, Audiard sometimes shoots through a sort of ad hoc iris effect, approximating Malik's limited understanding of what prison will be like, or his uncomprehending view of letters on a page as he begins to learn to read. But prison expands Malik's horizons. As much as Cesar and the other Corsicans look down on him, he can get out on daily leaves and they can't, so Cesar begins using him to conduct business outside the prison, scenes shot in a wide-open style that counters the cramped iris effect. Malik not only gets to leave the walls behind, he gets to travel, meet powerful gangsters and test his mettle, and he gets to hook up with his friend Ryad (Adel Bencherif), now released from prison, and start to set up his own criminal enterprises apart from Cesar's. And once he becomes Cesar's representative on the outside, the balance of power inside begins to shift.
As much as the film's internal drama derives from Corsicans versus Arabs, it is also ultimately a story of young versus old. Rahim's Malik begins the film with the perennial stunned, puffy demeanor of a chump who's just taken a beating. Arestrup's Cesar, meanwhile, looks at his circumscribed world with the unblinking stare of a man accustomed to being on the administering end of violence and power his whole life. Ruthless and suspicious, Cesar outmatches Malik at every turn, but all the while Malik is picking up Corsican, watching how business gets done, finding out what he's capable of. It's not something that A Prophet points out to you, mind; it's simply woven into the plot by the surpassingly patient Audiard, so that you realize how far Malik has come only a little before Cesar does.
There are a few moments of ostentatious flash here—an unusual car accident played out in slow-mo, a shoot-out in the tightest possible place, a recurring character with a gaping wound in his neck, a la An American Werewolf in London—but A Prophet is defined by a baseline realism that grounds those few deviations. The facile comparison would be to Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone's gritty 2008 organized-crime docudrama , or Goodfellas' epic gangster-coming-of-age sweep, but ultimately it has just as much in common, if not more, with A Man Escaped, Robert Bresson's painstakingly unshowy 1956 film about a man deliberately doing his time and plotting on his own eventual liberation. Such is Audiard and Rahim's achievement that when Malik accomplishes his liberation, it's a feel-good moment, even as a highly trained, fully formed gangster strolls out to meet an unsuspecting world.