Almost 70 years since the
Almost 70 years since the end of the Second World War, and there
are still stories to be told. Free
Men, from director Ismael Ferroukhi,
brings a little-known tale of liberty, equality and fraternity in occupied
Paris, and asks some questions about contemporary society to boot.
Moving quietly amongst
the dirt-poor North African immigrant community, Younes (Tahar Rahim) ekes out a living hustling black-market cigarettes and
food. Busted by the Vichy police, he saves his skin by agreeing to infiltrate
and inform on the Paris Mosque, a place about which the Nazis are suspicious
but culturally sensitive.
An adequate hustler but
an awful spy, Younes soon gets clocked by the mosque director (Michael Lonsdale), who’s playing a
dangerous game balancing deference to the local Nazi major (Christopher Bucholz) whilst all the
time hiding Jews in the labyrinth corridors beneath the building.
Younes is unwilling to
get drawn into a fight that he doesn’t see as his own – he’s an Algerian and he
refuses to believe that saving France or saving Jews should be any of his
But encounters at the
mosque with two people harbouring dangerous secrets – a honey-voiced
musician-singer called Salim Halali (Mahmoud
Shalaby) and a mysterious dark-eyed woman called Leila (Lubna Azabal) – make Younes realise
that nothing is normal, and the time is right to question and fight.
Rahim, so good in A Prophet, again shows his promise with
a performance of some subtlety. His Younes is a mirror for the viewers’
emotions – what would you do, he asks, in this situation; look out for number
one, or risk everything for what’s right? His almost blank face seldom betrays
his internal struggle, and the emotion comes only when the right path is
Free Men looks great –
occupied Paris is atmospheric, with its populace trying to maintain a normality
in the face of the brutality, while the mosque is a place of great beauty and
sanctuary, its azure tiling contracting with the darkness in the streets
And in these post-Mad Men
times, where cultural and aesthetic accuracy is deemed as important as events,
everything is just so. The interiors, the outfits and the scenery are glorious,
aided by Paris’ timeless quality, lending the film an authenticity to go with
And what authority –Salim
Halali lived, and sang, in Paris. Si Kaddour Ben Ghabri, director of the Paris
Mosque, was awarded the Medal of the Resistance in 1947 for his role in the
liberation. Younes and the rest are composites, representing the various
struggles that bought them together.
And it’s here that Free
Men makes a most salient point.
Algerian immigrants who
joined the Resistance were fighting for the liberation of their homelands,
which they believed would come when France herself was freed. Post-1945 the Fourth
Republic obstinately clung on to its territories, leading to the brutal war for
independence chronicled so astonishingly in the 1966 film The Battle For
Algiers, which shows the seeds of so many conflicts being fought, today, across
the Muslim world.
Free Men, an upstanding,
well-crafted film, demonstrates how much there is to be gained from casting
differences to one side when confronted with a greater cause. A good tale, well told.