Early in Jacques Audiard‘s Un Prophete, 19-year old Malik El Djebena, played by Tahar Rahim, newly incarcerated on a six-year sentence for assaulting a police officer, is talking with another inmate, Reyeb. Malik is illiterate and without assistance from outside the prison; he also has no protection from the other inmates. When Reyeb realizes that Malik can’t read, he tells him to use his time in prison wisely. As he tells Malik, come out of prison better than when you went in.

Reyeb simply means that Malik should learn to read, but these words have a much greater impact on Malik than Reyeb could ever imagine. Against his will, Malik has been sent by the Corsican mafia running the prison to Reyeb to kill him. His choice is to do this job or be killed himself. With nowhere else to turn, Malik ultimately chooses survival and kills Reyeb in a bloody struggle. This “success” sets him on a path towards his goal of coming out of prison better than he went in.

Here’s the trailer:

Of the three crime movies I’ve seen this year, including The Town and Animal Kingdom, A Prophet is by the far the best. Suspenseful, action-packed, and even kind of magical, A Prophet is an excellent movie.

Much of the film’s success is due to Rahim’s wonderful performance as Malik. His character starts the film as a terrified, uneducated kid. Malik slowly transforms into a multilingual force to be reckoned with. Rahim does an excellent job showing us Malik’s transformation, but even more importantly he keeps Malik sympathetic. As he moves up the criminal chain of command, he doesn’t lose his basic humanity. I, at least, was rooting for him to succeed, whether he was learning how to read or figuring how best to kill a mafioso.

After killing Reyeb, Malik enjoys the Corsicans’ protection, but he has to keep earning it by waiting on them like a servant. The Corsicans are led by CĂ©sar Luciani, played by Niels Arestrup. After many of Luciani’s henchmen are transferred to other prisons or paroled, he makes Malik his primary assistant. Malik takes this opportunity to demonstrate his resourcefulness: not only has he learned Corsican but he also has his hand in the prison’s extensive drug trade. When Luciana arranges for Malik to have 12-hour leaves from prison, Malik further uses this opportunity to establish ties to various crime lords in Paris and even in Marseilles. It’s only a matter of time before Luciana and Malik are forced to decide who owes who for protection.

The film is also well-directed. While the overall film is very realist in its look, some of the camerawork is pure poetry. These poetic moments tend to reflect an element of magical realism in the film. After killing Reyeb, Malik continues to see his ghost whenever he’s trying to figure out what to do next. He also begins to have dreams, at least one of which comes true. These mystical moments tend to give Malik direction in his life, and Audiard gives them a lyrical quality by often slowing down the motion or playing with the camera angle. I liked the contrast these moments have with the rest of the film’s realism.

Part of the realism is conveyed through the film’s violence, which is definitely graphic. Malik is supposed to kill Reyeb, for example, by slicing his jugular, but the murder doesn’t go as planned. Consequently, when Malik does slice his neck, blood gets everywhere. Subsequent scenes aren’t always as bloody, but the film never shies away from its violence.

The script is also excellent. The story kept my interest at every moment in part because I wasn’t sure what would happen next. A Prophet isn’t the kind of movie where you know from the get go that none of the important characters is going to get killed or that Malik will definitely live happily ever after. It keeps you guessing. Usually I want to know what’s going to happen, but this movie kept me watching despite this lack of knowledge.

A Prophet came out in 2009 but wasn’t released in the US until 2010, so I’m probably going to be counting it as one of my favorite films of 2010. I thoroughly enjoyed its suspense and action and definitely recommend it.