It may not be as emotionally vibrant as his last film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, but one could hardly hold that against Jacques Audiard's prison odyssey, Un Prophète (A Prophet). In fact, it's a strength: Audiard presents a fully convincing vision of a world in which weakness must be expunged and the only alliances worth having are the ones that can be put to work.
Malik el Djebena (the newcomer Tahar Rahim) fetches up in a French jail having apparently assaulted a policeman. Nineteen years old, broke, friendless, illiterate and, most damningly, North African, he's at the bottom of the pile. That means when the Corsican gang that rules the prison orders him to slash the throat of an Arab prisoner who is about to give evidence, he's powerless to resist. By going through with it, Malik wins himself some rather precarious protection. In turn he skivvies for the Corsicans, learns their language by soaking up their abuse, and gradually finds himself the despised but inevitable lieutenant of Cesar Luciano (Niels Arestrup), a slit-eyed bulldog of man who isn't above jamming a spoon in a person's eye to make a conversational point. Malik gets the run of the prison, making deliveries and spying for his boss. He also has the wit to use his new freedoms to start his own rackets, playing go-between with the Corsicans and the prison's Islamic inmates and using the parole that Cesar's official connections bought him to run a thriving drugs business. And then a government directive to relocate Corsican prisoners starts eating into Cesar's power base, and he and his protégé must scramble to find a new hold on one another while pretending that nothing of importance has changed between them.
Audiard handles his complex story, including the strategic and diplomatic wrinkles that his protagonist must negotiate, without surrendering much to the mechanical plottiness that often afflicts gangster films. Tahar Rahim takes most of the credit for this: soulful and obscurely winning even when at his most Machiavellian, it's difficult to imagine who else could make Malik's transformation from frightened boy to criminal mastermind quite so sympathetic - let alone get away with the more unexpected emotions he displays: ecstasy as a carjacking descends into chaos, or tenderness as Cesar is finally dethroned. He gives Un Prophète a living centre: welcome flashes of human insight to leaven the nearly pure economics of the film's narrative logic.
I say "nearly", because there's also some rather poorly integrated supernatural business. Malik is haunted by the Arab informer he killed at the start of the film. The ghost manifests in order to help Malik in his adventures. This at least avoids the cliché of the murderer driven mad by his guilty visions of the slain, but it's still pretty risible. Nonetheless, it doesn't intrude much into what, in the main, is a stylish and compelling depiction of prison politics.
Screens today at 3.45pm, Mall of the Emirates 3.