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Grade: A Finding one's soul behind bars

With smarts and style, French prison thriller 'A Prophet' earns its Oscar nomination.

Chris Garcia

Hauled to prison for a six-year sentence, 19-year-old Malik has no clue what kind of harrowing odyssey he's about to embark on. Homeless, illiterate, without family, he's been convicted of assaulting a cop, which he denies. He looks scared, eyes darting with vigilance. That changes when two inmates mug him for the sneakers on his feet. Instead of cowering, Malik brazenly attacks the thieves. He's still shoeless, but he's made a declaration. His face hardens.

That's just the start for Malik, played with extraordinary empathy and chilling conviction by newcomer Tahar Rahim in the intense, wickedly entertaining "A Prophet." The French film — nominated for Best Foreign Picture Oscar and a Cannes Film Festival winner — is grim and violent, yet it has buoyancy.

The characters move like vital, living creations, and the brutality radiates a Scorsesian exhilaration, a bloody zing. As criminal entanglements mount and affiliations blur, the movie never balks. It speeds ahead, reveling in its complexity.

A quiet kid, Malik, an Arab, learns the rough way that the Corsican mafia has its grip on the prison. Its band of inmates, led by aging Godfather figure César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), marks him as a pawn. In an unrefusable offer, they draft Malik to murder a fellow Arab prisoner. In turn, he'll receive mobster protection, meaning Malik will be their glorified servant.

Malik's kill, done messily with a razor blade, proves to be his original sin, innocence corrupted. To the Corsicans, he's a tabula rasa they can kick and bang into a lethal errand boy. The ruthless Luciani pulls legal strings to get Malik a series of 12-hour furloughs for outside jobs whose risk quotient is almost unbearable to watch. It's a convoluted racket: Whatever happens outside has implications inside. Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard, a shrewd stylist ready with visual surprises, makes sure you're too riveted to get lost.

(Audiard's a maestro. His "Read My Lips," "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" and now "A Prophet" are three of the smartest French thrillers to come stateside.)

Any number of prison dramas can be invoked next to "A Prophet" — the hard realism of "Hunger," the racial gang politics of "Bad Boys," a convict's personal growth in "The Birdman of Alcatraz." But a sly wit infects the moral burdens in "A Prophet," as Malik tries to reconcile his guilt with his drive, showing that prison isn't for rehabilitation, but for reinvention.

His is a story about locating one's soul in the face of brute survival. He's very good at what he does and, despite a mystical vision here and there, he proves he's nothing so rarefied as a prophet; he's a gutter prodigy.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649

Rating: R for strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language, drugs. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes. Theater: Arbor.