Some movies provide a light snack - and some provide a banquet, a feast of ideas, sensations and images that pull you into a world you never could (and never would want to) visit or inhabit.
Jacques Audiard's A Prophet (an Oscar nominee as best foreign language film and the film that ought to win) is one of those films - expansive, encompassing and yet deeply personal and intimate, even as it tells a story that sprawls over six years and the entire country of France.
Co-written with Thomas Bidegain (from a script by two other writers), A Prophet is firmly within the prison-film genre, yet one that turns it on its head. Most such stories document the dehumanization of the individual by and within the institution, the breaking-down of conscience and moral barriers. But A Prophet tells a nearly opposite story, one in which a young man, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), enters prison as a cipher and learns the skills that take him to the top of his field.
Granted, that field is as a crimelord - but to get there, Malik must overcome illiteracy, learn economics and politics, discover empathy (and cruelty) and strategy. Indeed, this film could just as easily have been called An Education, given the learning curve he is forced to undergo over the course of its story.
The first half-hour of this 150-plus minute film is nail-bitingly harrowing, as Malik, a naïve and clueless street punk, winds up in a French penitentiary, allegedly for "attacking police." Once inside, he finds that just how few resources he has with which to survive.
Worse, he becomes the focus of Corsican crime boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who is looking for a way to kill a snitch who's just passing through the prison. Cesar chooses Malik for the job, telling him that he'll have Cesar for a protector if he does it - and won't survive long with Cesar as an enemy if he doesn't.
Malik must find the courage to survive - which means learning to hide a razor blade in his mouth until he can use it on Reyeb, the snitch. Even as he's sitting with Reyeb, about to attack him, Reyeb (who thinks he's seducing Malik) is urging him to learn to read, to use prison to "leave here a little smarter." It's a lesson that Malik takes to heart.
The build-up to that killing - and the killing itself - are brutal, blunt, grim. And then the film changes, turning a corner.