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Cannes 2009: Possible Winner!

The new drama by Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) faded to thunderous applause, and is now enjoying the best reviewsof the festival.

A prison-set drama that fully occupies its two-and-a-half hour running time, it starts off as a gritty slab of social realism and then adopts thriller mechanics as Audiard hits the gas.

Set over three or four years, it tracks estranged Muslim Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim, superb) as he (d)evolves from wide-eyed, cowering inmate to ruler of the prison yard, a journey that begins with the Corsican mafia choosing him to kill an Arab snitch (Hichem Yacoubi) they can't get close to.

Malik has no say in the matter: it is kill or be killed.

But, successfully fulfilling his odious task, Malik is asked to stick around, his smarts and work ethic getting him ever-closer to prison kingppin Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup).

His value increases further when he has completed half of his six-year sentence and is allowed day passes to the outside world... where he starts running hefty drug deals.

Like all the best prison dramas (Becker's Le Trou springs to mind), A Prophet minutely details the rules ands rituals of the environment, painstakingly observing the cliques, back-handers, beatings, stabbings, etc.

It also scores big points for taking the pulse of a very topical debate: the status of the prison's Islamic population is carefully scrutinised, adding real racial and political frisson to the mix.

Weightier in tone than Audiard's pulse-throbbing The Beat That My Heart Skipped, this doesn't have quite the widespread audience appeal and is more likely to play to fans of such tough, challenging dramas as Gomorrah and Carandiru.

It has moments of jangling tension and the editing becomes more propulsive in the second half, but it's primarily a keep-it-real, dirt-and-blood drama, albeit with genre tics.

Unnecessary chaper titles and freeze frames aside (and the odd fantastical flourish, ill-placed), A Prophet is a compelling, forceful drama. Expect it to feature when the awards are handed out.