By Jamie Steiner. In Days of Glory (2006), director Rachid Bouchareb explored the often maligned French-Algerian soldiers who fought alongside their colonial ‘masters’ with exceptional bravery despite having never set foot in France until the advent of the Second World War. The film’s release caused quite a stir in France, confronting its populace with an uncomfortable chapter in history many would rather forget or are too ashamed to openly discuss.
By Jamie Steiner
In Days of Glory (2006), director Rachid Bouchareb explored the often
maligned French-Algerian soldiers who fought alongside their colonial ‘masters’
with exceptional bravery despite having never set foot in France until the
advent of the Second World War. The film’s release caused quite a stir in
France, confronting its populace with an uncomfortable chapter in history many
would rather forget or are too ashamed to openly discuss.
Fast forward half a
decade and Bouchareb has returned to familiar territory with a larger budget
than his last project, London
River (2009), a much
more low-key character based study set in the wake of the 7th of July terror
attacks on London. Was it this exploration of the effects of terrorism which
informed his latest foray into French-Algerian relations during the time of the
FLN (the National Liberation Front of Algeria), a period of intense internal
conflict and suffering on both sides?
Beginning where Days of Glory essentially left off, the story follows
three brothers wholly defined by their political stance and allegiances;
Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is a soldier in the French army; Abdelkader (Sami
Bouajila) a political agitator; and Said (Jamel Debbouze) couldn’t care less,
preferring boxing to anything else. Evicted from their home in 1925 under orders of the French
government, they are soon forced to flee again by circumstances when Abdelkader
is arrested during a riot in 1945 and sent to prison abroad.
Ten years later, Said
and his mother are living in a shanty town on the outskirts of Paris waiting
for Abdelkader’s imminent release. Rejoined by Messaoud, now a disillusioned
ex-serviceman, the brothers soon realise their allegiances are split. Said has
found a mentor in a pimp and now devotes his energy to training an Algerian boxer,
Messaoud is torn between fighting for Algeria or settling down with a family
while Abdelkader, radicalised during his stay behind bars, is determined to
fight an armed resistance.
From its opening scene
to the final credits, Outside
the Law wears its
cinematic influences on its proverbial sleeve. When government officials arrive
to seize the family land, their approach and the resulting
declaration of revenge is heavily reminiscent of John Ford Westerns,
particularly the framing and their protracted approach from the horizon. Later,
in the Parisian sequences, Bouchareb evokes all manner of film noir, from the
hardboiled Hollywood variety to the cine-literate takes on the genre by the likes
of Jean Pierre Melville. For a film that purports to represent an Algerian
perspective, it is told in a highly Western mould, within a narrative framework
those audiences will be familiar with.
scripted and occasionally thrilling, combined with terribly two dimensional
characterisation, and some questionable performances, Outside the Law winds up feeling a tad contrived,
people handcuffed to their purpose as opposed to their experiences or
motivations. In a typically half-hearted attempt at fleshing out a character,
Meassoud is handed a wife and a child to little or no effect, other than to
momentarily cause him to pause and think about his actions.
satisfactory nor faultless, Outside
the Law ultimately
frustrates, crying out for greater cohesiveness and a lesser predilection for
the obvious. If only the central plot had been as accomplished as Bouchareb’s
ability to create atmosphere and a sense of place, the whole would have been an
infinitely more rewarding experience.