Jacques Audiard, A Prophet, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 155 minutes. Production still. CÚsar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) and Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim). Photo: Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics.

IT’S NOT HARD TO SEE WHY A Prophet has inspired such an outpouring of critical enthusiasm. In this hot-blooded prison drama, director Jacques Audiard builds scenes of queasy intensity and then fits them into a skillfully concocted, near-epic framework. This aesthetic ferocity registers most forcibly during the film’s lengthy opening movement, in which multiethnic Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) begins his six-year prison term by falling under the sway of Corsican crime boss and jail-yard hotshot CÚsar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who forces him to kill a member of the rival Arab faction in exchange for protection. As Audiard keeps his handheld camera close to Malik’s scar-lined face, he conjures a mood of tense inescapability, building inexorably to the nearly botched murder itself. When, in that sequence, the razor blade hidden in Malik’s mouth slips, a single bloody strand of saliva falls from his lips; even after the protracted struggle that results in the mark’s death, it’s this single indelible image that lingers in the mind. While nothing else in the film matches this scene’s potency, there’s occasional competition, such as a late, van-set assassination, during which the director’s skillful sound manipulation is made evident. Instead, most of the film focuses on Malik’s education and rise to power, as he plays the Corsicans and the Muslims against each other.

So why does A Prophet often feel like less than the sum of its parts? First, not all of them are created equal. For every image of a plastic bag over a man’s head turning him into a Munchian grotesque, there’s a string-slathered shot of an airplane wing set against the clouds, crudely invoking Malik’s desire for freedom; for every detail-driven set piece, there’s a poorly played fantasy intrusion in which Malik is haunted by the ghost of his dead prey. But more important, the film lacks sufficient context, which limits it to a simple story about the rise to power of a single individual. While Audiard gives us some sense of the greater activity of the criminal organizations, there’s little investigation of the larger implications of cross-cultural identity—just an increasingly overwhelming cast of ethnically diverse characters and the tease of a few stray pieces of religious symbolism. As a crime drama, A Prophet is an engaging enough piece of work; just don’t expect revelations.

Andrew Schenker

Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet opens February 26 in New York and Los Angeles.