Agreeing at the insistence of a Corsican mob boss to suck and then slash a fellow inmate, newly jailed Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim)poor, illiterate, a "dirty Arab" in the prison's racist pecking ordergets what's coming to him, but in a good way. Indeed, crime pays in A Prophet, the Gallic gangster movie whose armed assault of film fests and critics' polls has made it the most widely valued French underworld thriller since the '60s reign of tough-guy auteur Jean-Pierre Melville. Does director Jacques Audiard deserve his new status as a made man? Sold to the global arthouse market as the "French Scorsese," Audiard does know his genre. A Prophet, the director has said, is the "anti-Scarface." Thus jittery El Djebena carves up a snitch in the first reel and goes out stylishly in the last. In between, he's incrementally rewarded by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup)the French jailhouse Don Vito Corleone. Whatever suspense A Prophet musters in its rather protracted running time involves our predictable unease about how far the student may be willing to go foror againsthis master. A Prophet affects an almost spiritual transcendence, but it's deficient in form and contentnot naturalistic so much as neutered, less revisionist than rote. Audiard's shrewdly determined redemption conceit requires his multi-ethnic gang war to resolve into some marketably "universal" truths. As Tony Montana would say, for the price of a movie ticket, the world is yours.
March 5-11, 2010