March 26, 2010 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'A Prophet' -- GRADE: B+

Review: Tahar Rahim shines in 'A Prophet'

Niels Arestrup plays a jailed mafia kingpin. )

There's a seething tension to "A Prophet" that never really settles down. It's the kind of film that keeps you squirming until the end.

That's because its title character, a 19-year-old Arab-Corsican tossed into a French prison with little savvy, lives on the edge, initially by necessity but ultimately because he seems to thrive on both danger and the quest for power.

We know nothing about Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim, Hollywood is waiting) other than he has long scars running across his back and he seems scared out of his mind as he moves into his prison cell.

That fear turns out to be well-founded. He's barely there a few days when the Corsican faction of prisoners enlists him to kill another newly arrived Arab. It isn't a polite request, it's a matter of kill him or we'll kill you.

Malik follows through and soon finds himself working as something of a servant to the Corsicans and their crusty, sadistic leader Cesar (Niels Arestrup). His Arab roots keep him from being completely accepted into the Corsicans, so he reaches out to make friends elsewhere, while more and more acting as an informant for Cesar.

Eventually Malik achieves a complete prison education, balancing dope dealing within and without the prison's walls with a slippery array of high-end betrayals and assassinations. The 19-year-old nobody becomes a master criminal and string-puller from behind bars.

Rahim is good-looking and expressive enough to become a major star, but it's writer-director Jacques Audiard who offers this dark orchid the perfect, dreary, claustrophobic setting for growth.

The gritty look of this film makes you want to take a shower. Its grim trajectory makes the concept of rehabilitation seem like a joke.

But the success of Malik is sheer American dream via France: Anyone can make it if they try hard enough.

Make it at what, of course, is always the question.

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Tahar Rahim stars as a young Arab-Corsican tossed into a French prison. (Why Not Productions)