Freedom Fighters CinĂŠmoi reviews a new political-period thriller starring A Prophetâ€™s Tahar Rahim
Words by Jack Jones
Free Men is in cinemas 25 May via Artificial Eye
Caught between the extremism of the Nazi occupation and the fight for equal rights for Algerian immigrants in France, Tahar Rahim’s role as Younes, an initially reluctant freedom fighter, is as nuanced and well constructed as the film itself. A period thriller set during World War II, director Ismael Ferroukhi raises both historical and contemporary political issues without it ever feeling preachy or at the detriment of the drama. Free Men isn’t just a depiction of the fight against the Nazi’s, it’s also about the struggle for equality in the face of fascism overall.
Free Men could be seen to have a political agenda in favour of recognising the crimes against French Algerians, but there is also an underlying subtext of discrimination made by those in power to people of various creeds, religions, races and sexualities. Based somewhat on the true events of a small group of French resistance fighters in Paris, the story primarily follows Younes who, after being pressured by the French police to spy on a mosque when he is caught selling on the black market, becomes increasingly embittered with the regime and active in the pursuit of liberation. Under the impression this bravery could also lead to Algerian independence in the future, Younes and his gang play a dangerous cat and mouse game with the Gestapo as they begin their round up.
The mosque Younes initially was spying on is revealed to be aiding Jewish residents to escape Nazi persecution by habouring them and providing false documentation. One member in particular they are helping is Salim, a popular musician and singer. Salim is in fact Jewish and hides behind the impression that he is Muslim. An unexpected friendship blossoms between Younes and Salim but is one that, by the end, is tested and broken because of political and social division. In the end, Younes must decide whether to save his own best interests or the lives of others. Tahar Rahim impresses greatly with a role that is very much straight off the set of Jacques Audiard’s masterful crime/prison odyssey A Prophet. Younes in many ways follows a similar path to that of inexperienced inmate Malik. Awkward and unsure at first, both characters are observant and quickly become assured of their surroundings and its hierarchies. Just as Rahim had done in A Prophet, there is a brilliant and utterly believable transition that he portrays in his characters. And as if in the flick of a switch, he can give a look of pure innocence and then suddenly one of confident ruthlessness.
The overrall style of Free Men has a simple, pragmatic and almost old fashioned sensibility. There is little to speak of in terms of action or flashy set pieces. Rather, the film has a quiet, impending terror that lurks in the background. As a film that references the Nazi persecution of Jews, Free Men is not as visually explicit as say Roman Polanski’s The Pianist or even the more recent Sarah’s Key. Ferroukhi’s tale is more about near misses and escapes and the day to day routine of avoiding capture. Brilliantly composed is a feeling of claustrophobia and dread that at any moment something could suddenly go wrong. An interesting companion piece to Free Men is Rachid Bouchareb’s Outside The Law. A far more politically overt film than Ferroukhi’s at times subtle approach, Outside The Law approaches the disenfranchisement of FrenchAlgerians with far more scope and focus. More of a historical prologue than that of the post-War fight for independence, Free Men leaves the film ending on a precarious and ambiguous note. The long standing animosity between Arab and Jew is a prevalent contemporary topic that still rages, but with
an approach that makes you question what is behind some of those understated glances and exchanges, this film lingers long in the memory.
Free Men’s success is precisely found in the whole tone of understatement, typified most by Michael Lonsdale‘s scene stealing performance. Tahar Rahim is undeniably great and is the glue that sticks the film together, but Lonsdale’s placid coolness is irrresistable. As the rector of the mosque, Lonsdale has a continual and daily sparring session with a suspicious German officer. But The rector keeps him close as to allay any suspicions however. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Lonsdale also adds a cheeky comic element to the wizened old man routine that only serves to frustrate the Nazi’s even further. Outwitted and outcharmed, the humourless Nazi’s almost implode in his very presence. One of the most well-pieced together and effortless films to watch in some time, don’t think that Free Men isn’t dramatically gripping or politically engaging as a consequence. This is a film with plenty to say but isn’t bogged down in its own message
“as if in the flick of
a switch, he (Tahar Rahim) can give a look of pure innocence and then suddenly one of confident ruthlessness”