An unemployed Algerian immigrant, Younes (Tahar Rahim) trades in the black market of wartime Paris in 1942 to support his family overseas. Faced with prison after being arrested by the police, Younes is pressured into spying on the Paris Mosque in exchange for his freedom. The head of the Mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale) is suspected by the authorities of offering refuge and assistance to Jews by providing false documents. Befriending an Algerian singer, Salim Halali (Mahmoud Shalaby) who attends the mosque, Younes discovers that Halali is in fact Jewish. As Younes delves deeper he is faced with a moral quandary: betray his friend and Ghabrit to the authorities or sacrifice his life and join the resistance.
The spirit of Jean Pierre Melville’s superlative L’ARMÉE DES OMBRES (ARMY OF SHADOWS) looms large over FREE MEN. However, where Melville offers a romanticised view of the resistance in wartime occupied France, director Ismaël Ferroukhi adopts a more measured view of the past to uncover a fascinating, hitherto untold story. Collaborating with historian Benjamin Stora, Ferroukhi has based the story around the historical figures of Ghabrit and Halali to shed light on the “invisible men” of France: the marginalised immigrant workers from North Africa whose involvement in trade unionism would gravitate towards participation in resistance groups. The film depicts how these acts of defiance would ultimately sow the seeds for the post war struggle for Algerian independence.
…director Ismaël Ferroukhi adopts a more measured view of the past to uncover a fascinating, hitherto untold story.
Set mostly within the colourful walls of the Paris Mosque (albeit shot in Morocco), and the nightclub where Halali performs, the film achieves a serene tone that is all the more surprising given the subject matter. Ferroukhi depicts the peace of the inner sanctum of the Mosque as a fragile one, dependant on Ghabrit (an excellent performance from Lonsdale) appeasing his suspicious German occupiers while following his humane convictions. Tahar Rahim convincingly portrays the apathetic and initially selfish Younes, whose acquisition of a tribal drum on the black market is the catalyst for his political and cultural awakening, bringing him into contact with the charismatic Halali. Mahmoud Shalaby gives real depth and vulnerability to Halali, a man who is true to his nature but paradoxically must conceal his real identity.
The contribution of France’s colonial subjects who fought for the ‘motherland’, particularly the many North African soldiers who would later be omitted from the pages of French history, has cinematic form in Rachid Bouareb’s DAYS OF GLORY. FREE MEN furthers this important revisionist agenda to challenge the orthodoxies that have marginalised the contribution of the many “invisible men” of the past.
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