A Prophet comes into being, in eye-rubbing glimpses, as our antihero begins a six-year-prison term. Illiterate and orphaned, 19-year-old Franco-Arab Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) similarly seems articulated into existence with his sentence, enduring early missteps in the yard before his baptism in arterial spray.
His father figure is Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), don of the prison's Corsican ruling class. Malik does the Corsicans' chores, takes their abuse, and picks up their language (though Cesar never learns Arabic). This former innocent's rise to crime lord allegorizes an immigrant people's emergence in their new homeland—setting out his own shingle in trafficking and realigning with the prison's emerging Muslim majority, Malik challenges the old order—and director-cowriter Jacques Audiard makes his debt to The Godfather plain well before updating its ending.
This comes, bookending the opening, upon Malik's release: aside from occasional empire-building furloughs, all 150 try-to-keep-up minutes unfurl within these self-assigned confines. DP Stephane Fontaine shoots in wary, darting handheld, as environmentally appropriate as the overcast, cement-gray palette; freeze-framed chapter titles and dream sequences raise the octave to epic scale. Absent other perspectives—the prison system is corrupt or ineffectual; female characters are either madonnas or whores to a degree even more literal than usual for the genre—there's naught to celebrate here save Malik's ascent; and so, with formidable focus, A Prophet adds up to exactly the sum of its parts.
Opens February 26