From A Self-Made Hero to Read My Lips, Jacques Audiard has studied the intricacies of illicit behavior. Criminal process is also the subject of his latest, set mostly in a French prison where watchful, 19-year-old Malik (Tahar Rahim) undergoes a rigorous and often brutal education. His tutor is a Corsican mobster (the domineering Niels Arestrup) whose first pop quiz is murder: To gain protection, Malik must kill one of his own kind. (Later, the ghost becomes another mentor—not a voice of conscience, but a second devil perched on Malik's shoulders.) Once initiated into the new gang, shy Malik surreptitiously learns its language (French and Arabic are also subtitled). And, on work-release days, its trade: drug smuggling in competition with rival ethnic crews. As in his other crime flicks, Audiard neither romanticizes nor condemns his striving hero. Malik is on the wrong side of the law, unfavored by circumstance, and there's nothing to admire in his rise. Rather, he's a creature who methodically adapts, a jailhouse scholar with considerable patience for the petty yet significant details of his craft: How to smuggle a cell phone. How to hide a razor blade in your mouth. How to flatter guards and gangsters. How to be underestimated. These are the tasks on which Audiard focuses our attention (sometimes with bleary iris shots); thus we applaud Malik's growing competence without quite rooting for his success. It's hard work being a criminal. But this Oscar-nominated movie's little flourishes—premonitions, portents, a slo-mo gunsmoke reverie—suggest it's also a gift of dark providence.
Rahim (left) has his ear filled by Arestrup.
A Prophet Opens at Harvard Exit, Fri. March 12. Rated R. 149 minutes.