When he enters prison at the beginning of the riveting French jailhouse drama A Prophet, Malik (striking newcomer Tahar Rahim) is a frightened and illiterate nobody, a baby-faced French Arab teenager with no family to care about his fate. When he leaves, at the end of a quietly stunning saga that won the Grand Prix last year at Cannes and is a worthy Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Malik heralds the rise of a new kind of crime boss: a self-made somebody who rises to power not by being the biggest or toughest, but by being the quickest study. Coerced into serving the brutal, aging César (The Bourne Ultimatum's forceful Niels Arestrup), leader of the Corsican Mob that rules over the Arab prison population, Malik proves to be more apt a pupil than César could ever have dreamed of the ''Arab dog'' who becomes his protégé.
Filmmaker Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) has rightly called A Prophet his ''anti-Scarface.'' As Malik solidifies his own sense of self (to the Corsicans, he's a hated Arab; to the Arabs, he's a hated Corsican), there's no flash or strut in his manner. There's also no romanticizing on the part of the director, who proceeds with calm, unshowy attentiveness (even in the midst of scenes of violence), creating a stunning portrait of an innately smart survivor for whom prison turns out to be a twisted opportunity for self-definition. A