Why did Un prophète win the Grand Jury prize at Cannes last year? Because it’s an absorbing, gritty prison drama following the unsentimental education of a quietly appealing young man as he learns, struggles and triumphs, executed with a high degree of skill and clear-eyed unsentimentality, and boasting a satisfyingly dense texture and enough stylistic flourishes to give the film its own distinctive character.

We enter to abstract impressions of voices and images, birthed with 19 year-old delinquent Malik (Tahar Rahom) into a new life in prison. He is of French-Arab parentage, but in the prison yard factions of Arabs and Corsicans, he finds himself in with the latter. Lorded over by César (Niels Ariestrup) with a certain Shakespearean regality, most of the latter are removed as political prisoners near the start of the film, leaving him reliant on Malik to oil the wheels of his criminal activities in and out of jail. Malik is a watcher and a listener, and acts servile whilst quietly learning Corsican and the ways of the game, able to leapfrog his way upward in part because neither side considers him quite their own. César gets him leave days to sort out the casinos, but on the side, tipped off by a funny-faced gypsy in the yard (shades of Warren Oates all too briefly displayed) and assisted by Ryad, an Arab friend parolee on the outside, he starts his own business dealing “le shit”.

Malik’s relationship with César is de facto a father-son affair, although neither exhibits any affection toward the other; it is played tightly along lines of control, master and servant. But as though moving into his “proper” place with the Arabs, Malik has an “I know you not, old man” moment at the end quite justified by César’s sour-faced tyanny; although the Corsicans generally consider the North Africans to be “less evolved”, the racial angle is played more as representation of France’s multi-culturality rather than as ideological battlefield, the natural ordering of the criminal world along ethnic lines. The North Africans are interchangeably referred to as Muslims, however, and whilst religion is explicitly irrelevant to Malik at the start, a brief moment halfway through has him replace his cell wall pin-ups with Islamic iconography, and dealing with the Arabs leads him directly to their capo’s cover operation, a mosque. Even in the shadow of that suggestive title and the slightly thudding forty days and nights Malik spends in the hole before emerging as king of the hill, however, quite how large a part religious ideology will play in the continued embrace of his ethnic background remains tantalisingly undetermined.

I was wary of this film despite its critical reception (prizes, film of the year all over the place).  It’s directed by Jacques Audiard, whose 1996 A Self-Made Hero (Un héros très discret) I hugely enjoyed for its terrific web of truth and fiction and a hugely appealing central performance. Subsequently, Read My Lips (Sur mes lèvres) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté) left me bemused at the extent of the critical praise they earned; well-crafted thrillers, they struck me as the sort of basic standard to which cinema should generally attain, rare enough it’s true, but fundamentally no more than adequate.

Un prophète is a step forward. This is due in part to the singularity of the setting and the impression of authenticity with which it is conjured; indeed, this authenticity has been praised at prison screenings, helped by the fact that although built as a set, the film’s jail is filled with real (ex, presumably) convicts, and much of the soundtrack bed was recorded in real prisons. Audiard can stage a fine set-piece — an unpleasantly visceral razor-blade cell murder, a battery-filled sock shower beating or a claustrophobic shoot-out in an SUV interior — but his impressionistic moments are also more successful than not; they are most commonly centred on the ghost who visits Malik, a flame sprouting from his finger or wrestling in blurred, chopped-up shots like an angel in the night; and a super8 dream vision provides Malik with the deja vu that will win the respect of a crime boss and get him dubbed “a prophet”.  Otherwise, however, the ghost never really impinges, drifting around the narrative, and Malik seems more non-plussed than guilt-ridden at this appealingly irrelevant touch.

Yet elsewhere the film is a touch too deft: pauses in the swift pacing often feel too brief and too token — there’s never a dull moment in this prison — and there’s even a happy prison montage as Malik’s lot improves, he moves to a bigger cell, and gets a whole load of gear like he’d splurged at Best Buy. Likewise, as Malik steps outside the prison for the first time in the movie, one can almost smell the dawn, but the euphoria of freedom becomes undone by over-plaintive strings and horns on the soundtrack and familiarly abstract reflections on a car window; the most effective note is struck when Malik is back in prison again and holds in his hand the beach sand from his sneaker, an unexpected but beautifully natural moment.

And the film would not be half as impressive without this consistently attractive central performance, which is just as well since we stick with Malik almost exclusively throughout. Rahom is a relative newcomer and doesn’t give a great deal away, but behind the face and torso covered in cuts and scars, behind the stubborn assertions that he works for no-one but himself, we are always aware of the little boy who’s a little bit scared and a little bit awed, and resolute in letting no-one see it (there’s a lovely moment where he naturally repeats the ritual of the prison entry at airport security). The tension leading up to his initiatory hit is vastly increased by the nervousness verging on horror that we can read in his eyes, but which we know the other characters cannot see, and right until the end we are never certain of the extent to which Malik’s sure of himself. But we know as well as he does that it doesn’t matter a jot so long as he carries on getting away with it. And this is the problem at the heart of the movie; Malik is hard-working, an achiever and never less than attractive.

Audience sympathy warms naturally to the genuine affection of his friendship with Ryad (terminal illness unnecessary, and to his assiduous application to learning to read and write and generally to “getting on”. Audiard has spoken of not wanting to portray a Scarface-type character rising in the underworld, and rather than a neurotic or a heavy we have a young man coming of age, with natural intelligence, some cunning, and an apparent grasp of the difference between right and wrong. For all that his absorption into adult criminal life is initiated by the inevitably fatal consequences of non-compliance, its continuance is in no doubt as he leaves prison with a cortege of SUVs, his self-made cartel, and the late but seamless addition of a family seems unlikely to convert him to the straight and narrow. Audiard’s explanation of the title refers to Malik is a new sort of criminal, one fluid in ethnic allegiance, intelligent and career-minded, at least possessed of a moral compass even if he chooses largely to ignore it; but he is in effect just another cinematic hood rising through the ranks, and the bildungsroman structure and unabashedly happy ending (celebrated with a weird rendition of “Mack the Knife”) seem to beg a troublingly uncritical sympathy.

A Prophet is France’s official submission to the Academy this year and open sin LA and New York on February 10.

Watch the trailer and find out more at the official site.