You've seen the story of Jacques Audiard's A Prophet before: a poor kid ends up in jail and meets a grizzled old mobster, who becomes mentor and teacher to the budding criminal; as a result, the kid becomes a tremendously successful crimelord himself. It's the basic arc of essentially every gangster movie ever made, and of course, some of those gangster movies are pretty damned extraordinary, so I won't even say "but you've never seen the story done this well." In all likelihood, you have, this well if not better. But none of this has anything to do with the essential fact that A Prophet is really great in its own right.

That greatness is derived mostly from the film's specificity: not just about the details of French prison life, which have rightfully won it praise from all corners, but about the story's cultural context takes place. A Prophet is the latest in the noble line of French movies about the sometimes terribly awkward integration of Arabian immigrants into the greater body of French society; for the poor kid in this case is an Arab, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), and the grizzled mobster is Cรฉsar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the leader of the prison's dwindling contingent of Corsican gangsters. I'm not pointing out anything that the screenplay (by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain) doesn't already insist upon, mind you: especially in its first hour, the film is dominated by scenes of Luciani and his lieutenants making snide comments about Malik's ethnicity, and how valuable it is that he gives them an "in" with the Arab prisoners; and much of what isn't given over to those scenes is instead taken up with the equally snide mockery of the other Arabs, who view Malik as the Corsicans' lapdog.

But the film is better than simply observing, "aha, there is tension between whites and Arabs", and leaving it done; for in the course of the story, Malik ends up supplanting Luciani's Corsican gang as leader of the predominant organised crime syndicate in the film's universe (I guess that's technically a spoiler, but not the kind that will wreck your ability to enjoy the movie whatsoever). In the end, A Prophet is telling the metaphorical narrative of how the traditional way of doing things in France is too old and rickety, and the immigrants that the old guard so smugly dismisses are the wave of the future, even if the immigrants have to sacrifice something of their native culture in order to beat the old guard at its own game. It is, basically, a snapshot of France as it suffers the difficult growing pains of integrating a new dominant subculture.

At the same time, it's a massively effective story about the very individual character of Malik, who is stunningly compelling as a human being, and not merely as the stand-in for a whole ethnic group. This has much to do with Rahim's excellent performance, which captures a confusing fluctuation of ambition, wounded pride, loyalty, fear, and the kind of animal intelligence that comes from having to survive at all costs; this heady potpourri of character impulses feels as natural and intuitive in Rahim's hands as you could possibly imagine.

Malik is thus an ideal character upon whom to hang a vast and comprehensive crime narrative, for no matter how complex and over-loaded things get, it always keeps a recognisably human core, even after the young man inevitably takes his turn from criminal-by-necessity to mobster-by-choice. There are a great many classic films that do much the same thing, and I'll not bore you by reciting their names; but A Prophet is, in this respect, as good as any of them.

Audiard stakes a claim for his film's uniqueness and originality largely in the way he depicts prison life; which, as I mentioned, everybody has already gone out of their way to praise that depiction, but it's worth reiterating, because this is the one respect in which A Prophet really does distinguish itself from the other "young man joins the mob" stories. The prison in the first half and change of the movie is presented with a level of specificity borne out of first-hand observation (several ex-convicts were brought on as consultants), but A Prophet has more than simple documentary appeal. For not only do we get a very good sense of the look of prison life, the director carefully augments the pacing of the film to suggest the daily monotony of prison without ever allowing the film itself to become monotonous. It's a thin wire Audiard balances on here, but he's terrifically successful. The movie never flags or even slows down in its seemingly-bloated 155 minutes; that running time flies by, even though full an hour and a quarter consists of virtually nothing but Malik wandering about the prison over the course of his first year. Admittedly, that first year isn't free of incident; the young man's first act in Cรฉsar's employ is to kill another inmate, in a scene that is shot with as much visceral tension and bloody detail as any horror film, and certainly counts as the first great action sequence released in American cinemas in 2010.

But mainly, the film is at all point about the interaction of Malik with his environment, and especially his interactions with Cรฉsar; I do not know how much of A Prophet is some variation on those two men talking, but it's much higher than you'd expect from a film that zips by with such intensity. Audiard has a tremendous gift for filming conversations in a way that give them a dreadful tension, and honestly some of the most exciting scenes in the movie are ones in which nothing happens at all. Of course, the interaction between Malik and Cรฉsar isn't "nothing", it's the highest-stakes game in the whole film; their relationship, after a fashion, is about the very heart and soul of France.

What more can I say? It's a socially-laden film that is propulsive and hugely entertaining; it is a thoroughly French movie in that respect, but one that has enough to say about the human capacity for doing evil in the pursuit of security that it doesn't seem to have national trappings at all. It ought to be challenging, but it flows so smoothly that you hardly even notice that you're being given a lesson at all. It's that rarest sort of movie, the kind that comes in on a huge wave of hype, and justifies every word of it.