Set in German-occupied Paris in 1943, we follow the life of Algerian immigrant and grafter Younes (Tahar Rahim), surviving on his own by selling goods to fellow refugees. However, following an arrest, he is blackmailed into becoming a spy for the law enforcement – as the police want him to inform them of wrongdoings taking place at the local Mosque, where they suspect the Muslims are providing fake identities for Jews hiding in Paris. The rector, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale), uses an intense degree of charm and intelligence to keep the law at bay, so the police are particularly determined to reveal the truth.
Younes, having befriended talented Jewish singer Salim (Mahmud Shalaby) – who is disguising himself as a Muslim – then decides against his undercover work, and is instead inspired to join his cousin Ali (Farid Larbi) in the resistance, as he seeks in helping the exculpated Jews, putting his own life in jeopardy in the process, by opposing not only the police, but the Nazis.
Despite the intriguing and provocative storyline, little is achieved in Ferroukhi’s second feature film – following his BAFTA nominated La Grand Voyage in 2004. Although setting itself up for a really climatic conclusion, Free Men doesn’t truly go anywhere, as despite expecting a rise in intensity as the film reaches its finale, it remains on a similar level throughout. On a more positive note, the North African music implemented is wonderfully complementary to the narrative, truly providing a feel for the setting and culture that the film is portraying.
Free Men is effectively a heart-warming, coming-of-age tale of one man’s intentions in helping the innocent in the face of adversity, taking on elements similar to those in films such as Schindler’s List and the recent In Darkness – yet it fails to truly capture the heartfelt, inspiring sentiment of these highly regarded pieces. In Ferroukhi’s defence, despite lacking in emotion somewhat – Free Men is presented more so as a thriller, giving it leeway for being less poignant than its predecessors, instead supplying a different, more intense and gripping atmosphere.
The creation of such an ambience requires a powerful and believable leading role, and Rahim excels as the heroic Younes. Similarly to his fantastic performance in A Prophet and the more recently released Black Gold, Rahim is once again portraying a character who begins naively, mostly unimportant – yet gradually builds up his reputation as the film progresses towards its latter stages.
What makes Rahim so impressive in such a role is that he has a brilliant sense of vulnerability which allows for his innocence to seem plausible, but he also displays a quite diligent and pugnacious streak where it always seems possible that he may turn to a darker side within his demeanour, capable of acts you hadn’t been able to envisage when first introduced to him. Above all, he has an assurance, which keeps the audience on his side throughout, always believing in him – imperative in your protagonist. There are definite comparisons to be made between Rahim and a young Robert De Niro, which is just about the best compliment he could wish to receive.
Free Men certainly promises much and although lacking in parts, remains a suspenseful and entertaining thriller; taking an alternative look into a period of time we have grown to know so well, and managing to introduce a whole host of new material that proves it truly was a war that will never cease to amaze and to horrify.