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A Prophet: movie review

In 'A Prophet,' a French-Arab teenager hones his skills behind bars to get ahead in the gang world.

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In this film publicity image, Niels Arestrup, left, and Tahar Rahim are shown in a scene from, 'A Prophet.'

Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics/AP

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The French have long been slavish admirers of Hollywood gangster movies, and "A Prophet," written and directed by Jacques Audiard, is the latest example of this fealty. It's about Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old illiterate French-Arab petty crook who is sentenced to six years in prison for an unspecified crime. The cast of characters may be different, but in many ways this is "The Big House" all over again.

This is not altogether a bad thing. Those old MGM and Warner Brothers crime movies were sturdy contraptions and can bear the weight of innumerable recastings.

And in addition to being an homage of sorts, "A Prophet" also has a real raison d'être – it takes the Gallic crime movie genre into new socioreligious terrain. The prison in this movie is a melting pot that mirrors the multicultural anxieties of modern France.

A nominee for this year's Foreign Film Oscar, "A Prophet" is also an object lesson in how prison can serve as a finishing school for crooks.

Malik starts out callow and inarticulate but he's smart enough to absorb everything around him. And this means serving as underling to the leader of the prison's Corsican gang, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who gives Malik a choice: either murder fellow Arab inmate Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), who is poised to give evidence in a mob trial, or be killed himself by the Corsican.

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