A Prophet is a huge, sprawling meal of a film that feels like a new classic. At two and a half hours the film takes its time, but that time is well spent in following a young prisoner as he steadily ascends the ladder of crime from nobody to kingpin.

Tahar Rahim, looking just like Telly from Kids, is Malik, a Parisian street thug who ends up with a six year prison sentence. He’s nothing – illiterate, disorganized, prone to act out of anger as opposed to any rational thought. At first Malik tries to stay on his own, but prison is a place where you’re eventually forced to choose sides. While Malik is an Arab he doesn’t end up with the Muslims, who toe the prison line, but with the Corsicans, a mafia group who run the prison. Resistant at first, Malik first becomes the Corsican’s Arab servant but slowly consolidates his own power – he learns to read, he learns the rules of crime from Cesar, the Corsican crime boss, and eventually Malik’s power stretches far beyond the prison walls.

The movie is a sly indictment of the prison system as crime academy. Malik is a kid who has been failed by schools and by society, but he’s not dumb, and by failing him, society has created a bigger problem for itself. Rahim is incredible in the role; his performance stuns, as does his physical transformation. Malik enters prison a sallow kid and by the end he’s utterly changed, barely recognizable. Everything from his body language to the very look in his eyes has changed, and Malik seems to morph in front of our very eyes over the course of the film. Perhaps my favorite thing about the performance is how quiet it is while still being incredibly powerful – Rahim’s force of personality comes at you like a silent shock wave. 

Niels Arestrup is Cesar, and he holds his own against Rahim in scene after scene. Cesar begins the film as king of the prison and slowly watches his empire crumble; while Rahim’s performance is all about growing into a role and becoming self-assured, Arestrup is going the opposite direction, slowly disintegrating as everything he worked so hard for falls apart. It’s a great performance because it’s filled with subtlety – you’re never really sure how Cesar feels about this Arab boy, and you’re never sure how much he knows about Malik’s extracurricular activities.

There’s another level to A Prophet that I don’t feel ready to really explore yet – the level indicated by the title. During the course of the movie Malik spends time with the ghost of the first man he killed in prison, and later on he has precognitive dreams. There’s a religious subtext to the movie, almost certainly about Mohammed (the film more or less spells that out), but it’s one that I can’t really speak to right now. While I wasn’t able to fully engage with this aspect of the film (due to my own ignorance), the movie is deeply enriched by it. A Prophet is a film that makes you want to know more about the themes director and co-writer (along with Thomas Bidegain) Jacques Audiard is explording.

Audiard, director of The Beat My Heart Skipped, is fierce with this film. Gritty and brutal but also poetic and even beautiful, A Prophet is filled with moments of tiny grace. Even the violence is monstrously gorgeous; there’s a third act shootout that is presented as nearing rapturous, and it’s simply incredible. The movie takes its time, but Audiard never lets any scene drag, and every minute of screentime means something and is building towards something.

You must see A Prophet. It’s an epic that is guaranteed to enter the roster of films you revisit time and again; there’s so much happening, so many rich characters, such a dense yet simple plot and so many amazing sequences. At the beginning of this review I said that A Prophet feels like a new classic, and with a couple of days distance from the movie this feeling only gets stronger. I think Malik is a crime icon in the making, a character waiting to take his place just below Michael Corleone and just above Tony Montana.

See this movie.

9.5 out of 10