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Little César

film_AProphetBrutal: Prison breeds a master criminal in 'A Prophet'

A French-Arabian youth with little education and no particular religion falls in with a bad crowd. Although he tries to work hard and stay out of trouble, he is literally forced into criminal activities in which the risks and the consequences are dire in the extreme. Lives (his own and others) are at stake every time he's faced with a new decision. How he learns to navigate this volatile minefield of crime and punishment is at the harrowing heart of Jacques Audiard's violent suspense thriller A Prophet (Un Prophéte). The twist is, the young protagonist's entire extensive education in the criminal underworld occurs within a French prison, after he's jailed on a charge so petty, it's never even mentioned.

Co-scripted by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, and nominated for this year's Foreign Language Academy Award, A Prophet is a brutal and visceral plunge into the abyss of criminal life. Nineteen-year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is sent to prison to begin a six-year sentence. He can't read French or Arabic, can barely sign his name to a document, and has no friends on the inside or outside. A loner, he sews blue jeans in the prison shop and tries to keep out of everyone's way.

But his placement in the Muslim wing of the prison makes Malik a person of interest to imprisoned Corsican crime overlord César Luciani (well-played by veteran French actor Niels Arestrup). César has business to conduct in the Muslim wing, and Malik is soon made to understand that just saying no is not an option. His attempt to go to the authorities only teaches him that César's vast and powerful inside crime machine includes most of the guards and the warden. Fumbling through his first assignment brings Malik under the protection of that machine—albeit in a demeaning manner, becoming known to all as "César's Arab."

Just like life on the outside, prison life consists of rival factions divided along such lines as religion, ethnicity, and/or nationality. A great deal of Malik's bad education occurs as he makes decisions about which side to ally himself to at any given moment. Stakes are high—wrong choices invite beatings and torture—but so too are the rewards: cell phones and DVD players, cigarettes, drugs, and the occasional house call from a pliant prostitute. In prison school, he studies up on French, Arabic and Italian, along with economics, to make himself even more indispensable in his newfound career. His learning curve is impressive, but the concept of "respect"—for himself and others—as preached by his fellow Muslim inmates is the lesson it takes a lot longer for him to grasp.

Weighing in at just over two and a half hours, this film demands a lot from its audience. While the intensity of the violence may be necessary to drive home the savagery of Malik's situation, it can be an ordeal to watch. Blood gushes like Old Faithful during one grueling murder scene; at another moment, Audiard zooms in for a tight close-up of a man suffocating under a plastic bag. (Although the filmmaker loses some credibility trying to apply the same violent aesthetic to scenes outside the prison walls, like a bloody shootout in the middle of a busy Paris street that causes no repercussions whatsoever from the police.)

On the other hand, Audiard is a stylist employing an art-house sensibility to a gritty genre crime melodrama. Dreams and other surreal, subjective viewpoints break up the action, while a kind of macabre whimsy is provided by the ghost of a murder victim (played with wry gravity by Hichem Yacoubi) who keeps popping up in Malik's cell—occasionally on fire—in moments of crisis or introspection.

There's no denying that A Prophet is put together with intensity, skill, and creative brio. It certainly succeeds as an indictment of the prison system. But aside from affable, temporarily incarcerated Ryad (Adel Bencherif), who becomes Malik's only friend, there's no one to really care about in the story. (Empathizing with Malik's desperation is not the same thing.) And viewers may wish it all amounted to something more powerful than the making of a master criminal.

A PROPHET (UN PROPHÉTE) ★★1/2 (out of four) Watch movie trailer >>>

With Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, and Adel Bencherif. Written by Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Audiard. Directed by Jacques Audiard. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 155 minutes. In French, Arabic, and Corsican with English subtitles.

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