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WORDS AND DESIGN AVALON LYNDON The experience of France (and its colonies) during the Second World War has been endlessly documented, analysed and processed through cinema. We know its stories: the battles (Indigènes), persecution (Nuit et brouillard), collaboration (Au revoir les enfants) and resistance (Army of Shadows). But every so often, a film comes along that takes us by surprise, that throws a new light on an old narrative. Free Men is one of these films. Based on true events, Ferroukhi’s Free Men is a film about a mosque which takes in Jews during the French Occupation, and a man who finds something to fight for. Tahar Rahim plays Younes, a young, illiterate Algerian immigrant struggling to make his way in Paris. He’s a bit of a wide boy, working the black market, buying valuables from the destitute and flogging them for a profit. In the film’s first scene he exchanges a priceless darbuka
(an ancient traditional North African drum) for a packet of cigarettes. This is a topsy-turvy world where everything and everyone is being stripped of their value, and Younes has no qualms about taking an old man for everything heâ€™s got. What he doesnâ€™t realise is that in his efforts to find a buyer for the drum he will meet an underground sect of the Resistance who will finally teach him what is really important in life.
Enter a host of brilliantly nuanced and fleshed-out characters, all with their own pressures, desires and secrets. Particular praise should go to Michael Lonsdale as Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the aging, wily rector of the mosque who is torn between the pressures of his role and the desire to resist. Mahmoud Shalaby, meanwhile, is captivating as the enigmatic Salim Halali, the real-life star singer with
piercing blue eyes and a back catalogue of hidden lives. Ultimately, however, Free Men’s impact rests on the shoulders of Tahar Rahim, who pulls another blinding performance out of the bag. He blew audiences away with his lost-lamb-goes-bad in Jacques Audiard’s phenomenal Un prophète, and after the big-money flop that was Black Gold, it’s fantastic to see him in such a meaty role again.
Of course, the music alone is reason enough to see Free Men. Ferroukhi knows this, and often lets the musical interludes speak for themselves, overlaying them onto a subtle game of looks and glances. Even if you didn’t know what a darbuka was before seeing this film, you’ll come out wanting to buy one, recruit a band and perform in dingy Paris cabarets ‘til the end of your days.
â€œEvery so o that thro
often, a film comes along ows a new light on an old narrative. Free Men is one of those films.â€?
At first glance, Free Men seems like a film imbued with idealism. While France today is bubbling with racial tensions, this is a story of unity in adversity, a case study in the fraternitĂŠ, the brotherhood, which France prizes so much but often falls so short of. There is a moment when the worshippers in the Grand Mosque crowd around Younes and a young Jewish girl, blocking them from the view of the pursuing German soldiers. Itâ€™s these small but profound moments, showing the power of the many to protect the few, that sum up what makes this such an interesting and unique film. But underneath it all is a knowing, niggling doubt. The Resistance fighters talk about Algeria. They believe that by playing this important role in the fight against the Germans, that France will rightfully award them their independence. You can see the fervour in their eyes, their genuine, trusting belief that they will be rewarded for their efforts. History says otherwise. The Algerian War of Independence which followed the Second World War in 1954 was another senseless loss of life, and another battle for freedom from tyranny. The filmâ€™s title is dripping in irony. For these men, freedom is still a long way off.