Free Men/Les Hommes Libres

 

Directed by Ismael Ferroukhi. Starring Tahar Rahim, Michael Lonsdale, Mahmoud Shalaby 12A cert, Light House, Dublin, 99 min

THE LATEST WORK from Le Grand Voyage director Ferroukhi seeks to uncover an untold history of North Africans in France. Set against the Nazi occupation of Paris, the film is in lofty genre company. Spiritually, the protagonist, Younes, is the younger, wider-eyed bastard offspring of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick.

The setting and the trajectory is familiar, but the picture’s revisionist representation of the second World War is not. Younes (Tahar Rahim) is part of a wave of Algerians and Moroccans who journeyed to France as migrant labourers and factory workers during the 1930s. His income is derived from the black market and, while he’s kind enough to send his meagre profits home to family in North Africa, he shows little or no interest in the plight of his colonial masters or in the recent German interlopers.

Following a raid, the local gendarmes persuade him to the contrary. A bruised Younes is dispatched to spy in the local mosque, where Si Kaddour Benghabrit (Michel Lonsdale), the head of Paris’ Muslim community, is seen to play jolly host to culturally curious Nazi officers. There is, of course, more to the wily religious leader’s actions than meets the eye.

Younes warms to the Islamic community and wakes up to the horrors of the German regime. His burgeoning political conscience is galvanised by encounters with Leila, a bewitching young Partisan, and by the heartbreaking voice of Jewish musician Salim Hilali (Mahmoud Shalaby, excellent).

Watching Tahar Rahim go from callow to killer is always a treat, though, as with Black Gold, the trajectory does invite comparison with A Prophet. Lonsdale is also impressive in a role that strongly echoes his recent turn in Of Gods and Men.

The film touches on themes as diverse as colonialism, modernism, nationalism and orientalism. But, hemmed in by budgetary constraints, the staging is a shallow and the framing is entropic. Like Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil, Free Men details a fascinating anomaly. Unhappily, the final cut, though enjoyable, is neither as fascinating nor as analogous as its subject.