By Linc Leifeste | April 6, 2012
Director: Ismael Ferroukhi
Writer: Alain-Michel Blanc, Ismael Ferroukhi
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Michael Lonsdale, Mahmoud Shalaby, Lubna Azabal, Christopher Buchholz, Farid Larbi, François Delaive
Set during the Nazi occupation of Paris, Free Men is based loosely on the true, inspiring and rarely told story of a small group of Muslims who joined the French Resistance, using the Grand Mosque of Paris as a base of operations in rescuing Jewish fugitives as well as carrying out targeted strikes on Nazi informants. The mosque’s rector, Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale), carries on a duplicitous relationship with the Nazis, as shown through his perfunctorily cordial interactions with Major von Ratibor (Christopher Buchholz) while secretly carrying on an operation of providing fake Muslim papers to Jews in danger of arrest and eventual execution.
The film’s focus is on Younes (Tahar Rahim), a young Algerian immigrant who is making a living trading goods on the black market during the occupation. After being arrested and facing potential jail time, he is offered a chance to walk free by serving as a spy in the mosque. After initially halfheartedly following through on his half of the bargain, he has a gradual change of heart based on several factors, one being his experiences at the mosque, with its feelings of calm and peace in the midst of a society that has been turned on its head. He also is intrigued by Leila (Lubna Azabal), a mysterious woman who he encounters in the mosque and eventually meets and pursues romantically. Ultimately Younes’ decision to break away from his pact with the authorities centers on his relationship with cabaret singer Salim Halali (Mahmoud Shalaby), an Algerian Jew who has benefited from fake Muslim papers and is involved in various underground activities.
The film was shot on a relatively small budget for a period piece and it shows at times, leaving me with feeling at times that I was watching a made-for-TV movie. While the story has all the elements needed for a first class period thriller, it never fully delivers. There’s very limited action and none until the first hour of the film has gone by, which in and of itself wouldn’t be a bad thing if the film managed to better build the tension that seems inherent and essential in telling such a story. Instead, the film often feels plodding in its first half before transforming into a more conventional low-key thriller in its second act.
Tahar Rahim clearly has a strong screen presence with his oft cited resemblance to a young Robert De Niro being accurate, but he is woefully underused in his role as Younes. Speaking few words and often appearing to be a novice out of his league, his compelling transformation from self-centered black marketeer to selfless resistance fighter that lies at the heart of the story is neither adequately explained nor fully explored. And while Shalaby is engaging enough as Salim, something about the relationship between he and Younes never fully clicked for me. Additionally, I found that the several lengthy musical performances by Salim fell somewhat flat.
Where the film shines brightest, other than in Rahim’s strong performance and the few moments of tension, is in its portrayal of Muslims and Jews working together in spite of religious differences, through a sense of shared national identity and opposition to a mutual enemy. While I have no idea of how historically accurate the events of Free Men are, the story of people coming together despite religious differences seems to sadly always be relevant.