If James Toback's petty-criminal tale "Fingers" inspired Jacques Audiard's previous "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," it's Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" that looms over his latest "A Prophet." Successfully balancing art-film portraiture with a gangster picture's plot, the film may be one of the more conventional movies in this year's Cannes competition, but judging from the sustained applause after its Cannes premiere on Saturday morning, it's also been one of the more satisfying.
"A Prophet" chronicles the criminal education and identity formation of an 18-year-old Arab kid sent to prison for a 6-year-sentence. When we first meet Malik El Djebena (excellent newcomer Tahar Rahim), he's a scared and ignorant kid, with an 11-year-old's education, unsure of how to navigate the overwhelming new realities of prison life. Audiard skillfully captures Malik's confusion with a wandering handheld camera and his limited worldview with a masked lens that only reveals a small circular portion of the frame - a closed-off perspective that will inevitably widen by the films' conclusion.
Utterly isolated, with no family or friends in or outside the prison, Malik struggles to stick to himself and keep a low profile, a strategy that only works for so long. Soon Malik finds himself in the protection of the Corsican mafia—headed by the white-haired patriarch Cesar (played by veteran Niels Arestrup, reprising his complicated father-figure from "Beat That My Heart Skipped"). Malik's safety comes with servitude: His first task for the Corsicans is the murder of new Arab inmate Reyeb, a harrowing assignment involving the delivery of a razor blade hidden in his mouth to the target's jugular. With this first major set piece, Audiard sets the stage for the film to come: a mixture of bloody violence - a la Scorsese - with the interior struggles and ambitions of his protagonist.
Audiard charts Malik's rise through an array of characters: some important, a Muslim friend Ryad, who helps Malik learn to read and eventually offers him his only sense of real family; others somewhat extraneous, Jordi the Gypsy, a drug dealer who fuels Malik's underworld career. Title headings and character names printed on the screen provide a guide for those who will play a role in Malik's development, but don't really add much to the proceedings. Other stylistic flourishes work to lesser and greater degrees: a pair of slow-motion dream sequences may distract from the more urgent verite visuals; while surrealist sequences involving Reyeb's return to Malik's guilty conscience offer depth to Malik's state-of-mind and internal battles with his Arab identity.
At two and half hours in length, "A Prophet" doesn't feel slow, showing Malik's growth in step-by-step stages that naturally evolve—while never losing sight of the fact that he remains an innocent. A scene involving Malik's first plane trip provides a welcomed and lighthearted reminder that the character, now a major player navigating both Corsican and Arab gangs, is still a kid at heart. Newcomer Tahar Rahim gives Malik the right combination of tough bravado and naivety; watching him evolve is one of the film's chief pleasures; and while the actor may not have the eyes of Emanuelle Devos (Audiard's "Read My Lips") or the energy of Romain Duris ("Heart Skipped"), he's got plenty of boyish charm.
In fact, "A Prophet" is best seen as a portrait of a young Arab man in search of his identity. Whatever not-so-subtle Oedipal conflict emerges between Malik and Cesar, the bond doesn't have the emotional weight or dramatic satisfaction to sustain the film. What audiences will most remember about "A Prophet" is not Malik's troubled relationship with this father figure so much as the sight of a man come of age, finally standing tall with his fellow Arab brothers.