In the male prison subculture there is a stark difference between the convicts and the inmates. Convicts are criminals, not by happenstance but by design. Crime is their career. Hence they occupy the upper tiers of the prison yard pyramid. They are the mob connected conspirators, bank robbers, drug dealers, counterfeiters and contract killers.

At the very top of the pyramid is the highest ranking mob member unlucky enough to be doing time. The bottom is comprised of the despised sexual deviants. In the middle is everybody else. The fish, as they are called. The inmates.

Every ethnic group has a pyramid. The prisoners segregate themselves accordingly.

The convicts run the prison or, in their vernacular, the college. They are the administrators and the professors. They decide who gets in and who languishes on the outside. Unless you are one of the sincerely religious--and they will test you on this–you really, really need to get into college, that is, if you want to survive.

Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a hapless nineteen year old who finds himself in an adult prison for the first time, doing a six year stretch. As a French Algerian he is presumed to be Muslim, though he is not religious. This inconsistency brands Malik an outsider, so he resides in the lower middle regions of the pyramid as an inmate.

Doe-eyed and baby faced, Malik seems painfully out of step among the convicts. When he must strip, he covers his nakedness with his hands. He is like a deer in the proverbial headlights.

But there is a different side of Malik too–he is serving time for assaulting a police officer. Plus there are the unsettling knife scars that run across his back and a faint one under his eye. When he is propositioned in the shower, he indignantly, menacingly bangs his head against the stall. Again…And again.

Cesar (Niels Arestrup) is a stoic, grizzled convict who leads the Corsican mob. He notices that Malik is always alone and sums him up as an easy, vulnerable fish.

Normally Cesar would never stoop so low as to approach a Muslim, especially such a lowly one, but his Corsican bosses have issued a hit on a drug dealer named Reyeb…And Reyeb is Muslim. He also happens to be the prisoner who propositioned Malik in the shower. Cesar has spies everywhere, so he knows this. He sends his thugs to threaten Malik into killing Reyeb.

Malik is horrified by his dilemma. Repulsed by the idea of murder, he tries to beg off. He is beaten. He tries to snitch. He is thwarted by guards on Cesar’s payroll–and is beaten worse. Desperate, he joins in on a gang bludgeoning of a fellow inmate so that he will be thrown into solitary confinement. He is beaten again and a shank is put to his neck.

This is the last time, he is warned. If he does not follow through he will be stuck, bled and gutted like a pig.

In many ways Jacques Audiard’s chillingly complex drama, A Prophet, plays a lot like a tragedy. At first we see Malik survive an almost impossible situation. Yes, he kills Reyeb. He must. There is no other choice but death. In doing so he gains Cesar’s protection and entry into the lowest echelon of the Corsican mob.

Then, from a position of servitude, Malik observes and learns. With humility he hones an innate shrewdness and patiently begins his assent through the ranks of the Corsican mob until, finally, he is poised to vie for power.

But for a film to be considered a tragedy the protagonist must posses a fatal flaw. Malik doesn’t have one. Therefore A Prophet is merely a crime drama in which there are tragic elements, chiefly that Malik’s college has produced such a reluctant and unlikely, yet, so finely trained specimen.

Oppressively grim and excessively long, A Prophet is not an easy movie to digest. The plot takes off in a rabbit’s warren of unnecessary twists and turns revealed in subtitles. Its strength lies in an unadorned and cautionary depiction of criminality as a virulent contagion that thrives in a prison host.

Tahar Rahim plays the almost blank slate Malik convincingly–possibly too convincingly. Only in the most extreme circumstances do we really feel for him, though we understand his lack of emotion has been cultivated by neglect and abuse.

Likewise Niels Arestrup is coldly sterile as Cesar. His vestiges of humanity are only discernible when he gasping for breath.