In A Prophet (Un prophète), Malik El Djebena is a 19-year-old semi-delinquent who has just been sentenced to six years in prison for assaulting a police officer, an offense he vehemently denies at first, until he realizes no one cares whether he did it or not. Malik enters the prison nervous, quiet, scared, his eyes conveying his fear. When the film ends, 2 1/2 hours later, that fear is gone.

Directed by the highly regarded French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped), A Prophet might have been just another movie about what prison does to a person, were it not for the elements suggested by the title. Malik has what you might call a religious awakening while he's incarcerated -- not uncommon in itself, but Malik's prophetic calling takes it a bit further.

Born in Morocco, Malik (played by Tahar Rahim) speaks French and Arabic. He's not a practicing Muslim, but his Arab ethnicity leads people to assume otherwise, and he can pass between Muslim and non-Muslim groups in the prison. He doesn't completely belong in either society, though, until he is claimed by the Corsicans.

Yes, Corsicans! From the island of Corsica, between France and Italy. In this case, the Corsicans are Mafiosi, led by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who's in prison with a couple dozen of his associates for goodness knows what crimes. Luciani needs to whack a witness who happens to be a fellow prisoner, and who also happens to be an Arab. The witness, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), knows he's a wanted man and has been very cautious, so Luciani recruits Malik to get close enough to him to do the job. Malik, heretofore a petty criminal at best, has no experience with witness-whacking, but Luciani doesn't give him a lot of options. The scene in which Malik and Reyeb face off is alarmingly tense and horrific.