Posted August 18, 2011 by Emily Williams in DVD/Blu-ray
 
 

Outside The Law


It is a sign of the Algerian War’s contemporary relevance in French society that Rachid Bouchareb’s Outside the Law star-studded Cannes premier was lined, not only by spectators and photographers, but by riot police, ready to deal with protests that the film was anti-French. Indeed, that this can still be the reaction of the French populace – that any film that celebrates the Algerian war of independence is to be condemned out of hand – is in itself a reason why this film had to be made, and despite its problems, celebrated.

It is a sign of the Algerian War’s contemporary relevance in
French society that Rachid Bouchareb‘s Outside the Law star-studded Cannes
premier was lined, not only by spectators and photographers, but by riot
police, ready to deal with protests that the film was anti-French. Indeed, that
this can still be the reaction of the French populace – that any film that
celebrates the Algerian war of independence is to be condemned out of hand – is
in itself a reason why this film had to be made, and despite its problems,
celebrated.

Director Bouchareb is no stranger to controversy: his 2006
film Days of Glory about the fate of
North African soldiers fighting for France during World War Two, was so
influential that then French president Jacques
Chirac
changed the law that had prevented veterans from claiming their
pension after Algeria achieved independence.

Outside the Law is less masterful than his previous effort,
but still captures much of the spirit of a period that has been relatively
under-explored by cinema.

The film starts in 1925, when we see a family receive the
news that they are to be kicked off the land that has been theirs for
generations in favour of a French colonialist. We fast forward to 1945, and while Paris, and the French
in Algeria celebrate VE Day, Algerians march in favour of independence.
Violence breaks out and thousands of Algerians are massacred. A son of the
family we met in 1925, Abdelkader
(Sami Bouajila), gets caught up in
the violence and is hauled off to jail in Paris, where he is to receive his
political education.

For the next ten years the sons of the family go their
separate ways. Massaoud (Roschdy Zem)
joins the French army fighting in Indochina, but comes back confused about
which side he should be supporting, while the youngest son Said (Jamel Debbouze) moves, with their
mother, to the slums Nanterre, a Paris suburb, where he gets involved in
prostitutes, clubs, and boxing in an attempt to make his fortune.

In 1955, the brothers reunite in Paris, where Abdelkader and
Messaoud join the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale), a revolutionary group
fighting for Algerian independence. The two brothers set out to enlist their
neighbourhood, and while at first their methods are clumsy and amateur, we
watch them work their way into the FLN hierarchy, dedicating their lives to the
cause with such fervent belief, they seem close to losing their own identities.

Despite featuring such a revolutionary era, Bouchareb has
made a rather convention film. You have all the usual set pieces of a gangster
thriller (gun battles, car explosions), the morals of an old fashioned Western
(the noble cop, Faivre fighting against the outlaws), even the sentimentality
of a family drama.

It seems, perhaps, that this breadth is where the film lets
the viewer down. In truth, most of the characters are two-dimensional, with the
women characters suffering the most, being little more than barely fleshed out
stereotypes and passive followers of the men’s wills. The sons too become
little more than symbols: Abdelkader, a Malcolm X figure, the mastermind
revolutionary, Messaoud, the right hand man who takes care of the messy
business; Said, the thug set on making money, disinterested in politics.
Despite this, what holds the film together is the relationships between the
brothers, which, in their messiness, their conflict, becomes believable.

Despite being condemned as anti-French, the film is actually
fairly balanced. The ruthlessness of the FLN is made abundantly clear, and the
main French representative, former Resistance fighter now policeman, Faivre is
depicted sympathetically, fighting for a France that he truly believes in.

Bouchareb’s strength lies in creating atmosphere, and the
attention to historical detail and warm haze which lies over the whole film
truly transports you to another era.


Emily Williams