Starring: Tahar Rahim, Michael Lonsdale, Mahmud Shalaby, Lubna Azabal, Farid Larby
Running Time: 99 mins
Synopsis: In Nazi-occupied France in 1942 an Algerian immigrant decides to join the resistance, after forming a close bond with a Jewish musician…
Loosely based on true events, this war-drama, which moonlights as an edgy espionage-thriller at times, follows Younes (Rahim), a black marketeer, and a man of few words, who plies his trade on the streets of Paris. During one of his business deals he befriends Salim; a young Jewish musician, whose popularity is rising amongst the people. Just as the two start to cherish each other’s company, all is thrown asunder, when gendarmes find Younes in the company of his cousin, Ali (Farid Larby); a respected union member and resistance leader. Though his cousin escapes, Younes is caught and decides to spy on the worshippers of a local mosque – which is believed to contain Jews hiding under the guise of Muslims – rather than stagnate behind bars. However, he is quickly uncovered by the wise rector of the mosque, Si Kaddour Benghabrit (Lonsdale), and subsequently becomes a double agent. Inspired by his friendship with Salim, his cousin’s brutally honest predictions for Algeria’s future, and sickened by the Nazis’ abhorrent actions, Younes joins the resistance.
This is only Ferroukhi’s (LE GRAND VOYAGE) second attempt at helming a feature film, and he should be proud of his efforts overall. He has orchestrated a gripping story with robust characters and performances. Letting the gritty realism of the time speak for itself, he also allows the mise en scène and character interaction to paint the picture for the audience, employing a minimalistic directorial style. His implementation of low-key lighting and drab colours contrast beautifully with the few vibrant and aurally stimulating scenes in which Salim is singing, and playing the darbuka with his band. These rare splashes of colour give the audience a break from the futility of the character’s dilemmas, and in such a way that it does not detract focus from the story or jar the viewer.
Conversely, FREE MEN, which was co-written by Ferroukhi and Alain-Michel Blanc (EZRA), does contain a number of small plot inconsistencies, including a pivotal scene that is questionable in terms of believability, though not completely condemnable. Thankfully, strong performances from Rahim as the understated Younes, Shalaby as the genuinely affable Salim, and Lonsdale – whose facial expressions alone could tell a thousand stories – help to gloss over these irregularities, and realise an otherwise intricately layered script.
In terms of casting, direction, performance and character depth, FREE MEN is almost flawless. Its only real let down is the oddly unexplained plot device that contradicts the nature of the beast, and leaves you with a small nagging doubt you can’t quite erase.
FREE MEN is released in the UK on Friday 25th May.