Free Men tells the story of how Algerian immigrants played a key role in World War 2, specifically to the French resistance.
Free Men tells the story of how Algerian immigrants played a key
role in World War 2, specifically to the French resistance.
Although the Algerians contribution to WWII is largely unknown, director Ismael
Ferroukhi has chosen to include a real event that happened during the
German occupation of Paris, with a slight twisting of the truth.
We are first introduced to Younes, a
young Algerian immigrant who is making a living by trading on the black market.
Younes is played by Tahar Rahim, who you may recognise from 2009’s A
Prophet, one of the best films in recent years in which Rahim put in a star
performance. After being arrested by the gestapo, Younes is given the chance of
going free if he agrees to spy on the Great Mosque of Paris. Nazi’s were
deporting any Jews from Paris at the time and they suspected that the mosques
senior officer Si Kaddour Benghabrit may be fostering some Jewish
stowaways. Younes quickly finds this to be true but decides to turn a blind eye
after befriending a young Jewish singer named Salim Halili. In reality,
Halili was a very famous Arabic singer who we meet here just as he is beginning
to hone his talents. Many of the Jews during this period were masquerading
themselves as Muslims to avoid arrest by having fake identification. After
being inspired by these men and identifying with their struggle Younes decides
to join many of them in the French resistance.
The main problem with Free Men is that
it has a lot to say but it doesn’t quite know how to say it. With this being
based around the true event of Benghabrit sheltering Halili, it is obviously a
courageous and unique story but it feels forced in areas. Benghabrit and Halili
should be the main characters here but instead the fictional Younes takes
centre stage. Whilst Younes is joining the resistance and fighting the good
fight, Halili’s tale is sort of going on around him. You never get any real
emotional weight here and considering this is a true story it is rather clumsy
handled. Throughout the film Ismael Ferroukhi is trying to take on board
several different themes such as war, fascism, religion and sexuality. The only
problem is they are only briefly touched upon and, after a few scenes, are idly
tossed away. The same could be said for a few characters that come and go with
not so much as a whimper. You suspect this is a take on the savagery of the
times but for the sake of a narrative it doesn’t really work. Lastly one of the
biggest let downs with Free Men is Tahar Rahim himself, who really struggles to
carry the film. In A Prophet he did an excellent job at being the reclusive
loner, who was tough but way out of his depth, much like his character here.
The difference between A Prophet and Free Men is that Rahim had a great actor
like Niels Arestrup to work alongside during large periods in A Prophet.
An actor of similar status in Michael
Lonsdale is really good as Benghabrit here. Its just that him and Rahim
have very little screen time together. Instead of really connecting with
anyone, Rahim finds himself meandering around scenes and generally looking
quite awkward. All in all, the cons outweigh the pros in Free Men.
The story of the Algerian effort during
World War 2 is obviously a fascinating and intriguing story that too few people
know about. Ismael Ferroukhi is from French- North African descent, so this is
sure to be a subject close to his heart, yet you can’t help but feel he’s tried
to cram way too much stuff into such a small running time. The inclusion of the
Salim Halili story doesn’t really flow with the rest of the movie and would be
much better suited to its own feature film. The story of these brave men and
the sacrifices needs to be told. Unfortunately Free Men isn’t it.