Free Men

Free Men

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Are you devout?" a police officer asks Younes (Tahar Rahim). The young Algerian is unsure quite what that means. As the story develops, the question lingers, becoming increasingly difficult to answer. Who is it our duty to help? People who buy our loyalty? People who share our values? People we approve of? Or all people? And if it's the latter, how can that be squared with the violent realities of conflict?

Younes is asked the question because he has been arrested in possession of smuggled goods. They'll let him go, the police say, if he agrees to spy on the mosque. But whom is he spying on, and who for? This is 1940s Paris. Nothing is simple. In the mosque people talk about Algerian liberation but they also talk about liberating France from the occupying Nazis, and Younes discovers his own cousin is a member of the French Resistance. On the surface the head imam (Michael Lonsdale) has a good relationship with the Germans, who are loathe to antagonise the Muslim community, but in secret he is hiding Jews and Communists, issuing them with false papers. Immediately identified as a police agent, Younes is nonetheless made welcome. Never particularly interested in religion, he finds himself experiencing spiritual conflict for the first time.

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Free Men struggles with the slow stretches and episodic pacing that often trouble historical dramas but has the advantage of covering a slice of history that is rarely discussed. With characters who come and go and complex political manouvers in the background, it could easily confuse a newcomer to the subject, but it deftly avoids this by keeping us close to its central character. Rahim shows here that A Prophet was no fluke, with a very different but equally solid performance that really has us rooting for him even when he's reluctant to risk his own skin for others. Younes' confusion, uncertainty and initial inability to stand up for himself makes him an everyman who helps bring home the reality that extraordinary acts of heroism performed in that era were the work of ordinary people no different from you or me. It also brings home the fear in which such people lived - inevitably the mosque's activities cannot go unnoticed forever.

Backing Rahim is a strong ensemble cast which helps to flesh out the diversity of the Resistance - indeed, of most such movements. Younes finds it easuer to make decisions when thinking of the beautiful and mysterious Leila (Lubna Azabal), who lives at the mosque, yet it is his friendship with singer Salim (Mahmud Shalaby) - "the finest voice in the Arab world" - that really changes him. Salim has more than one reason to fear the Nazis, yet his love of life is inspiring to a young man with little direction. Their relationship is beautifully, subtly drawn, with relative newcomer Shalaby outstanding. The infusion of music into such a tale elevates it beyond familiar grit and draws out the thread of the spiritual.

With its rich, involved story and insightfully developed human drama, Free Men transcends the usual limitations of the genre and delivers something fresh. Its historical themes are no less relevant today. Well worth seeking out.

Reviewed on: 23 Jul 2012
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In 1940s Paris, a young Algerian is blackmailed by the police into spying on a mosque and finds his life changing forever.
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Director: Ismaël Ferroukhi

Writer: Alain-Michel Blanc, Ismaƫl Ferroukhi

Starring: Tahar Rahim, Michael Lonsdale, Mahmud Shalaby, Lubna Azabal, Christopher Buchholz, Farid Larbi, Stéphane Rideau, Bruno Fleury, François Delaive, Jean-Pierre Becker, Marie Berto, Zakariya Gouram, Slimane Dazi, Aïcha Sokrane, Djemel Barek

Year: 2011

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: France

Festivals:

NY Rendez-vous 2012

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