Free Men (Les hommes libres) (review)

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Free Men yellow light Tahar Rahim Mahmoud Shalaby yellow light

I really wanted to love this film. I’m fascinated by stories of the French Resistance during World War II, as I knew this was before I saw it, and by the time it was over, I was stunned by its audacity, for it tells a tale of immigrant Algerian Muslims in Paris who sheltered immigrant Algerian Jews in the cavernous Paris mosque and also provided them with false papers testifying to their Islamic faith. What’s more, this really happened, though it has been up until recently a mostly unknown history of the war. (See this New York Times article for more on the film’s background.) There’s potential for real power and a stinging lesson for today’s world here… and yet the execution is disappointingly prosaic. Perhaps the problem lies in how director and coscreenwriter (with Alain-Michel Blanc: The Concert) Ismaël Ferroukhi chose to fashion his narrative around an invented figure, Algerian black marketeer Younes (Tahar Rahim: Black Gold), which perforce limits the perspective on his interactions with the genuine historical figures here, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale: Agora), the head of the mosque, and Salim Halali (Mahmoud Shalaby), an Algerian singer. Rahim stalks through the film with the same quiet, concentrated presence he brought to A Prophet (Un prophète), as his Younes is slowly transformed from an opportunistic operator to a Resistance fighter and a man of conscience, inspired by Ben Ghabrit’s example and Halali’s friendship. Yet while we get glimpses of the dangerous diplomatic games Ben Ghabrit must play with both the Vichy and Nazi authorities and hints of the power Halali has over Younes, there’s too much biding time with Younes while other much more dramatic events are occurring offscreen. For all the passion and danger inherent the time and place, this is a curiously, mysteriously muted movie. I kept hoping to get caught up in it in more than a coolly intellectual way, but that never happened.

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