Václav Havel, who has seen a few cells in his time, once pointed out that while most rookie convicts expect boredom to be the predominant state during incarceration, the opposite in fact holds true. Far from struggling to fill the days, one experiences exhaustion from negotiating the various codes and grudges upon which the social structure of prison is predicated. This fretful climate provides the backdrop for Jacques Audiard's supremely confident thriller A Prophet (Un prophète).
Life inside for 19-year-old Malik el-Djebena (Tahar Rahim) kicks off with a good hiding and the theft of his trainers. Then it turns nasty. The Corsican gang that rules the roost enlists him to murder a fellow inmate. Malik isn't coaxed or bullied - he is simply informed by the ageing gang leader, Luciani (Niels Arestrup), that the job is his. If Santa Claus spent ten years drinking meths on skid row, he would look like Luciani. The damage this man can inflict with a spoon would put you off your prison porridge; even Don Corleone would have thought twice before spilling Luciani's grappa. "Now that you're in on it," he warns Malik, “if you don't kill him, I'll kill you." Well, since you put it like that . . .
Everything about A Prophet starts out small, including Malik. When he arrives, he has a ratty handsomeness (think De Niro in Mean Streets). He moves awkwardly, he's illiterate, and aside from the scars on his back, he's a blank. The glory of the film lies in seeing him take shape, physically and psychologically, over the course of his sentence: it's like watching a stammerer mastering a Shakespearean soliloquy. Audiard and his co-writer Thomas Bidegain take their time with the transformation, but A Prophet needs every one of its 155 minutes. The roving camera, urged on by Alexandre Desplat's score, seems to capture Malik's thought processes as he realises that eyes and ears can be more useful in prison than feet and fists. Gradually, he acquires respect, power, even a hint of nobility (think De Niro in The Godfather: Part II).
As he matures, the scope of the film grows organically around him. What starts as the profile of one convict expands into an indictment of the penal system as a crucible of criminal ambition. During his six-year stretch, Malik commits crimes that could earn him that sentence many times over again. The glaring irony is that the contacts he fosters inside enable him to launch his drug-dealing business on the outside. Not content with demonstrating that prison produces better criminals, Audiard also investigates the shifting ethnic composition of organised crime. "Am I crazy or are they multiplying?" sneers Luciani at the Arabs congregating in the exercise yard. "Good job they're dumb." What he hasn't grasped is that mafiosi are so 20th century.
It's mildly disappointing that this level of scrutiny isn't applied to the area of machismo. The delusion persists, in those prison movies that don't ignore the topic altogether, that sex between male inmates is the sole preserve of sadists (see The Shawshank Redemption or Edmond). To that, A Prophet now adds assassins. Only by feigning interest in the overtures of his intended target can Malik gain the access necessary to carry out his gruesome task. The attack, when it comes, is sudden and frightening, and puts a ghastly new spin on the Judas kiss. Still, there's something conflicted about a film that doesn't skimp on the bloodletting but is too squeamish to admit that sex in prison is not generally a preamble to murder.
In other respects, A Prophet provides the sort of elegant pleasures we have come to expect from Audiard. (His four previous films include A Self-Made Hero and The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Each one is a winner.) It may be a modern cliché to feature a dead character conversing with the living, but when Malik receives counsel from one of his own victims, it's more than mere wackiness - the grim existentialism of the prison movie is being gently undercut. We're not talking Bresson's A Man Escaped by any means. But a dusting of hope or humour in this claustrophobic setting can act like a whole wandful of magic dust. That Audiard liberates this locked-down genre with the suggestion of something equivocal and even spiritual raises his mighty film into a different class