(Free Men, A film directed by Ismael Ferroukhi)
The plot of this French film diverges from the bolus of most American film we are force-fed in that it deals powerfully with subject matter that counts. It treats an almost unrecognized aspect of WWII in Europe, eliciting a strong cathexis from the viewer, who learns so much that he never knew before this celluloid feast.
It is almost, alas, a stealth offering; despite playing to enthusiastic audiences in New York, Free Men has gotten hardly any press at all and little review coverage, though it seems -- only early April -- to be one of the year's best, along with the wonderful Intouchables, another French offering with high marks for engrossing plot, cast, and telling. The principals in Free Men are outstanding, with one, playing the Imam of the Paris mosque under the Vichy French, once the storied lead in Fred Zinnemann's Day Of The Jackal (1973).
The protagonist, handsome French Algerian Younes (the excellent, comfortably understated Tahar Rahim), a black marketeer, is dragooned into spying on the Paris mosque, to avoid torment/certain incarceration, by the starkly anti-French gendarmerie now in control of Paris in 1939. The mosque is suspected of harboring Muslim Resistance forces as well as secreting Jews trying to escape the net of Nazi Occupation roundups. Si Kaddour Benghabrit (the superlative Michael Lonsdale, who has been seen in dozens of French and American films over half a century in cinema), a cunning yet affable imam in white robes, runs the Muslim community center in Paris, a warren of tiles and fountains, footpaths of alabaster -- and vast wine cellars and niches for casks. He is feted by the turncoat French, the Nazi brass, and all who plump for the destruction of the former patriotic French, the Jewish population, and all who would stanch the Nazi overtake of the country. In this plot-dense, incident-rich telling, the French police seem chillingly more sinister and crueler, more willing to shoot prisoners in the head, than the resident Nazi occupiers. (Though the Nazis earn few ribbons for niceness themselves.)
The story is partially true, save for the character of unfazed, imperturbable Younes, to some extent. Kaddour uses his vast mosque, with a tunneled cellar reminiscent of the Italian catacombs (where so much went on during the Middle Ages best left unrevisited), to house escaped Jewish orphans, escapees from the Jewish manhunt, and numbers of counter-insurgency fighters planning actions against the Nazis and traitor French. Kaddour, brilliantly handles the Nazis who regularly visit his center. Younes, picked up by the French and Gestapo in his black-market dealings, is required to spy on the mosque in exchange for his liberty. There are compromised Algerians, Muslims, and French in all levels of Paris -- schools, hospitals, jails.
A well-regarded Muslim singer who performs at Parisian nightclubs is acclaimed blue-eyed, raven-haired musician Salim Hilali (Mahmoud Shalaby). He is suspected by the Muslim and police community to be in fact a Jew. Younes befriends him (before Facebook made this an everyday act) and joins the Muslim-French Underground. When he is inevitably captured while singing, Salim is rescued via heart-palpitating measures by the Muslim Resistance community. The film builds suspense imperceptibly, as the audience knows all too well the fate of anyone found "helping" the unloved segments of the populace under constraint.
Those who fall afoul of the Nazis get their comeuppance, but so do those who betray their freedom-fighter confrères. A tantalizing romance between Younes and a Muslim woman who is not what she appears at first glance is all too brief. Though some Jews and others were saved by brave decent French and Muslims, when their lives hung in the balance, it is almost painful to watch the loading up of army trucks with Jews, Communists, and other unwanteds without thinking too of those being killed today in parts of the world by today's avatars of murder and intolerance. North Korea. Libya. Blacks in South Sudan. Yemen. Copts in Egypt. Iran. Americans in Afghanistan. Infidels in Pakistan. A top-ten Peck's "bad boy" listing of ultimate danger.
Ironically, most of us know what eventuated among the Algerians after this, when the French and Algerians were at all-out raging, bloody loggerheads from 1954-1962, and Arabic was forbidden as a spoken language for many years under the determination of the Gauls, who murdered and tortured a reputed 100,000 Algerians. My Arabic teacher, a gentle Algerian Muslim, recalls being forbidden to write or speak Arabic for many years, even in her home, until Algeria won its independence.
A powerful film well worth the time. Where so much was risked and dared against huge odds, and many were saved, appreciation must be tendered. One of the best films of the year.