Jacques Audiard has never made a bad movie, but neither has he made many of them. Five films in fifteen years: it’s a pace that might make you suspect him of harboring eccentric ambitions, or just being fussy, if he weren’t so obviously in love with genre storytelling. Four of his films, the new one included, are crime pictures; the fifth might be classified as a caper; and though all are stylish, they’re realized with such swift story development and emotionally direct acting that they give at least an impression of spontaneity, as if Audiard and his protagonists had figured out the plots together, on the run.

Perhaps "figured out" is an exaggeration. Audiard’s principal characters bluff, blunder and scheme their way through situations that have every appearance of being too much for them, given their patent frailties. Even the ex-con in Read My Lips, paroled into a flunky office job, could be overmastered by a copying machine–and he was played by the one real tough guy among Audiard’s actors, Vincent Cassel. (The heroine in that film was profoundly deaf and so had problems of her own, for which the tough-gal attitude of Emmanuelle Devos could not entirely compensate.) In Audiard’s other crime movies, his lead actors have been a neurotic, inward Romain Duris in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (a remake of James Toback’s Fingers, and for my money a considerable improvement on it) and the unmistakably homoerotic pair of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Mathieu Kassovitz in See How They Fall: Trintignant looking as fragrant and winning as a leather jacket salvaged from a garbage can, and Kassovitz trotting after him wide-eyed as if the jacket had true outlaw allure. As for Audiard’s caper, A Self-Made Hero (his satirical fable about a Frenchman who joins the Resistance on May 8, 1945), it was another project starring Kassovitz, this time as an upwardly mobile fabulist who so much wanted his profitable lies to be true that his girlfriends, and the audience, forgave him.

So too will the audience forgive the typically vulnerable and malleable protagonist of Audiard’s latest film, A Prophet (Un Prophète), even though Malik El Djebena is by far the most blood-spattered in this line of characters, and lives in the most violent and claustrophobic of the movies. Claustrophobic, yet expansive–because this contemporary prison drama stretches out for two and a half hours (not a minute of which is wasted) while covering six years of its main character’s life and a major portion of the National Front’s nightmares.

At the heart of the film is the dilemma of a young French Arab–illiterate, unskilled, at home nowhere except in the house of detention–when he at last graduates into the adult prison system and cannot make a place for himself in its cliques. On one side are the other Arabs, whose devotion to daily prayer appears to be alien to Malik. ("Have any special religious needs?" asks a guard–one of the very few old-style French people in the movie–during his intake interview. "You eat pork?" To which Malik shrugs and says, more or less, "Why not?") On the other side are the members of a Corsican gang, who are more powerful, more alien and (worst of all) more interested in Malik.

This gang needs him to kill another inmate, Reyeb, a wary informant who will let no one but a fellow Arab get close enough to strike; and though Malik has neither the tools nor the temperament for this job, he nerves himself up for it rather than let the Corsicans kill him first. In exchange for the murder, he receives a sweater (cheap, but better than his other clothes), the privilege of serving the gang members their coffee (while being called a dirty Arab) and immunity from further bullying (except, of course, by the Corsicans). All this, plus a life-size guilty conscience (which moves into the cell with him, looking just like the man he killed) and a thirst for revenge that is so urgent that Malik must be very, very patient to realize it.

About that guilty conscience, and the film’s title: Malik eventually proves to be a prophet in an ironic sense of the word by transforming himself from a lone outsider to a criminal leader. (He even passes through the obligatory "Forty Days and Forty Nights," as noted by one of the film’s chapter titles.) But Malik is also a prophet in something closer to the standard sense, as a seer. Some of his visions are so vivid and glowingly colored that they seem physically present–like his murder victim, who can even talk to Malik, despite the gash in his neck. Other visions are gray and shadowy, tapering into darkness at their margins and flashing before Malik in discontinuous glimpses; and these sometimes allow him to anticipate what’s going to happen. The paradox of A Prophet is that the moments of clairvoyance aren’t clear at all but resemble the iris effect that Audiard uses when he wants to make visible the limits of Malik’s consciousness.

The film actually begins with one of these effects. First there’s darkness and the sound of a man loudly protesting that "You can’t put handcuffs on me." (Evidently, he’s wrong.) Then, as the sounds continue, a portion of the screen opens to a confusion of clouded views of a police station–they look as if they’d been taken with a handheld camera during a downpour of baking flour–in the midst of which you get your first look at Malik. He sits hunched over in a semi-juvenile condition, scrawny, ragged, bushy-haired and (despite his own handcuffs) silent. If it were not for the cut under his right eye, which is seeping blood, you might imagine this man to be chronically docile and abashed. Certainly he’s bewildered. At this stage in the film–and only at this stage–you understand the forces arrayed against Malik a little better than he does. The dimness of the image, which later will signal uncanny insight, here testifies instead to partial blindness.

Soon, though, Malik begins to see the here-and-now in a flood of daylight bright enough to wash out all the colors. This is the condition of the prison yard when he is first summoned by the man who will be his user, oppressor, protector and inadvertent teacher, the Corsican gang boss César Luciani (Niels Arestrup)–as squat, white-haired and nutcracker-profiled a godfather as you will ever meet–whose first words to Malik, interestingly enough, are "Don’t look at me." Of course. In A Prophet, it sometimes seems as if the whole art of prison governance–the actual governance, I mean, as distinguished from the official–is a matter of determining whose eyes get to see what information. For example, as Malik rises in the system, he gets to acquire video equipment for his cell, on which he can watch contraband porn and clandestinely recorded messages. When Luciani wants to discipline Malik, he does so with a very convincing threat to remove his left eye with a spoon.

You might say, then, that in addition to being a tough and suspenseful drama about crime behind bars, a frequently gleeful study of France’s changing demographics and an absorbing portrait of an isolated victim studying to become a winner, A Prophet is an essay on different modes of vision. It’s about the inadequacy of subjective viewpoints, the potential power inherent in a mundane, realistic perspective (what you might call surveillance-camera sight) and the occasional superiority of an inward vision, which can be indistinguishable from blindness. At the decisive moment in his ascension, Malik in fact can see nothing. He is on his back in the middle of a deadly chaos, covered by bodies, unable to lift his head and look around, and for the first time in the film he’s laughing.

With that image in mind, it’s time to pay tribute to Tahar Rahim, the young actor who in his first major screen role plays Malik, or the many different Maliks who evolve. With his long, narrow head balanced uncertainly on sloping shoulders, Rahim was an easy choice to embody the character’s physical vulnerability; but then, any adequate performer could have conveyed the suffering of a man who is periodically left writhing on cement floors. What impresses me about Rahim, and what makes A Prophet work so well, is the lightness he brings to the role. There’s a gawkiness that permits you to smile a little at Malik’s moments of confusion; a bounce to the step (never a strut) that lets you enjoy his hustles; and a secret sassiness that invites you to participate in small triumphs that nobody else is supposed to observe. The ultimate sign of Malik’s intelligence? It’s the way Rahim sticks out his tongue.

So far as I know, Rahim’s most notable previous role was in a French TV miniseries, La Commune, written by Abdel Raouf Dafri, who had the idea for A Prophet and brought it to Audiard. This doesn’t seem to have been a package deal, but it does give evidence that a French Arab sensibility was present at the start of the movie and ran all the way through. Credit where it’s due–but especially to Audiard, thanks to whom this hot rod of a movie jolts along on fuel that’s equal parts adrenaline and ambiguity.

What expression plays across Malik’s features, late in the film, when he finally gets his revenge? The question isn’t rhetorical; I really can’t say whether satisfaction, sorrow or shock predominates. All I know is that the sequence of long shots and close-ups, in shadow and washed-out light, is perfectly judged and reveals all these emotions on a face that Malik keeps carefully still. Audiard number five: excellent.

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Three times a day for the past two months, alerts from a web magazine have pried open my e-mail box with sharp little exclamation points. The reason for this vandalism: I must be told that Avatar has now pulled ahead of The Hurt Locker, or vice versa, in the Oscars competition.

If these were the only reasonable choices for Best Picture, then I suppose I would hope for the victory of the one that dares to talk politics. (That would be Avatar.) But really, only a mug looks to the Oscars for relevance; and how much fun can you expect from them, when Marvin Hamlisch’s brilliantly unhinged score for The Informant! didn’t even get nominated?

I’d rather ignore the whole thing. But because the nominees in the perennially slapdash foreign-language category include Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon–Audiard’s A Prophet is another–this might be the moment at last to bring up an awkward subject.

To his admirers, Haneke is a figure of probity, whose immaculate and unnerving formal sense is matched by moral rigor and unsparing social conscience. He shows us the nasty truth about our world, and ourselves, and does so with such uncompromising clarity that we can’t look away. For those who feel this way, The White Ribbon is a great achievement. Shot to resemble August Sander’s classic photographs of peasant life, it is the story of ghastly assaults, some explained, many unsolved, in a German village on the eve of World War I. What do they mean? As one of the film’s characters says in retrospect, this story may shed some light on "events that happened later in our country." But the use of the conditional is a dodge. Haneke leaves no room for doubt: you are witnessing the origins of Nazism.

Except that you’re not. Haneke’s historicism, too, is a dodge (even if he’s empty-headed enough to believe in it), given that the punitive tendencies and sexual misery of The White Ribbon‘s characters are a free-floating condition throughout his films, belonging to every era and therefore to none, explaining everything and therefore nothing. Had The White Ribbon presented itself as just another Haneke horror show–see the monsters! feel glad you’re not them!–I would have to accept it. But it makes a larger claim, which is so bogus that I finally have to protest: if you want a faithful depiction of Nazism, you’d do better to revel in Black Book.