A guy gets thrown in prison, we watch him struggle to deal, to adapt, to wise up and then, in the last scene, get released. Though ostensibly this basic, “Un prophète” (“A Prophet”) deserves the international praise it’s racking up — a rare quality, it makes us sympathize without simplifying. The film is a character piece if there ever was one; Malik El Djebena (an award deserving performance by Tahar Rahim) takes us with him on a sordid journey of survival and ironic personal growth, one whose progression only make us wince.

And yet Malik is a mystery — a film uncompromisingly focused on the present, on the daily walls and halls of jail — we do not know anything of his past, his family, the streets he grew up on. He’s an 19-year-old Arab sentenced to 6 years in a French prison for assaulting a police officer — this is all we know. The rest is an exercise in perceptions and half-understandings through deduction and empathy. The large scars on his back, for example, hint that he’s gotten at least as bad, if not worse, than he’s dished out. And though he seems a healthy strong guy, he’s clearly not used to the rough and tumble thug life — on practically the first day, he is sent sprawling in pain with one punch for refusing to give up his sneakers. But he learns quickly.

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However adeptly Director Jacques Audiard delves into individual male psychology, he remains adamant about building a thorough context for his protagonists and what they become as we watch. Like the world of his previous film, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” nothing is a mere act of individual rottenness; here violence is either structural, built into the very grittiness of the institutions themselves, or organized, a play of many us-and-them’s that Malik spends his sentence managing. The prison is virtually split between Muslims and Corsicans, with the latter in control at the start of this torturous, if unwaveringly sharp film. Being on the side of power seems a no-brainer, and not much of a choice once he’s forced through a murderous rite of passage. But Malik has never killed a man before, and it’s a deed he’ll have trouble stomaching for most of the movie. But, like most things, it gets easier after the first time.

And while there are no clean hands in this place (the guards seem more brutal than the prisoners at times — this is after all, the France that gave us Foucault), viewers with the tendency to look for an evil bastard at the heart of all narratives will surely point the finger at the ageing, truly ugly mug of César Luciani (Niels Arestrup). The godfather of the Corsican clan, he takes Malik under his wing, more for his own manipulative ends than because he trusts him. While we encounter a plentiful array of scumbags, from Egyptian drug dealers competing for hash market share to the mobsters of Marseille, it’s Luciano who forms an almost Freudian repulsion, building up to a powerful scene of betrayal. Malik plays the field, getting better at working all sides, though always with a sheepish, slavish assertion that the only loyalty he has is to himself. But not to inner principles — the compromise, if anything, is to let life be nasty and brutish, if only not too short.

It’s for this all pervasive brutality that there is no hope of redemption — even as the credits rolled, I waited to hear a last gunshot. It’s two and a half hours of feeling that there’s no way out, and that no one can get, or walk, away. This is not a date movie — the only moments of relief are when, gifted a day outside for a coerced good conduct record, Malik lets his hair blow in the wind, looking out at the trees, a fantasy of freedom. So when the cabbie tells him to roll up the window, you cant help but sigh, just a little. It’s for this that the film is perfect, if not also for its smart writing, beating pace, and its ability to keeps the same cracked paint and ragged faces vivid till the end.

It’s as much about him transforming as the influences that coerce transformations — essentially, “Prophet” stands out as not so much a tale of innocence lost, as innocence at first taken, then bargained, traded and left behind. “The idea,” says an inmate, “is to leave here just a little smarter” — a message that may as well be for us as for Malik.