Dir. Ismaël Ferroukhi, France, 2011, 99 mins, in French with English subtitles
Review by Colin Dibben
Clunky, un-developed plotting and uninspiring film-making let down this potentially great ‘hidden history’ of Algerian-Muslim life in Paris during the 1940-1944 German Occupation.
Younes (Rahim, last seen gobbling razor blades in A Prophet) is a young Algerian black marketeer in Occupied Paris. He’s arrested and ‘turned’ by the French Immigration Police, tasked with spying on what’s going on in the Paris Mosque. The authorities think the rector of the mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Lonsdale), is harbouring Jews. As Younes becomes more involved with North African immigrant cultural life through the mosque, meeting singer Salim (Shalaby) and Leila (Azabal), he comes to question his allegiances.
This film should tick all the boxes: a thriller combining spies, Nazis, French police collaboration, Muslims and Jews getting on well together, political intriguing inside a mosque, Muslims joining the French Resistance, even a hero’s moral quandary. And it’s based on fact. Somehow, however, after the first 30 minutes, you’re aware that the film isn’t going to deliver any substantial thrills or development of any of this. We get a lot of Rahim’s hamster face looking a bit confused, lots of Lonsdale looking old and wise, lots of contrived eavesdropping scenes and a general impression that the Muslims, Communists and Resistance are connected. On the plus side, there’s some great music, nice wandering shots around the interior of the mosque and a shootout.
The connection between the political and cultural groups needed more work to make Free Men stand out. Even more so than Rachid Bouchareb’s recent Outside the Law, this film dumbs down the history it purports to tell. Free Men also forgets to develop its story in interesting directions; and a lot of the camerawork is merely workmanlike.
A missed opportunity to tell a fascinating story.