Free Men Review
Director Ismael Ferrouki’s second feature takes a North African perspective of Nazi-occupied Paris and centres around Algerian racketeer Younes played by Tahar Rahim star of the BAFTA Award-winning A Prophet.
Like A Prophet, Rahim plays an Algerian muslim with no particular allegiance who just wants to operate under the radar of fighting factions, do his time and leave. Whereas A Prophet featured Muslims versus Coriscans vying for power in a Prison setting, Free Men tells the remarkable true story of North African Muslims helping Jews escape Third Reich oppression.
Younes hopes to earn enough money selling contraband to fellow immigrants to support his family and start a new life in his Algerian homeland but his plans are thwarted when Vichy officials uncover his black market dealings and issue him an ultimatum: face an indefinite amount of time in prison (or worse) or become a mole in a mosque suspected of sheltering Resistance fighters and Jewish fugitives.
It’s here that director Ismael Ferroukhi weaves in the true story of nightclub singer Silam Hilali (Mahmoud Shalaby), whom Younes befriends. The charismatic singer was one of dozens of Jews who escaped the Nazis thanks to false papers provided by the Grand Mosque’s rector, Ben Ghabrit, played effortlessly and gracefully by Michael Lonsdale (Moonraker, Of Gods and Men, Ronin). Ghabrit uses subtle powers of deception against the Gestapo to ensure his Mosque stays a safe haven for Jews.
The more Younes discovers about the mosque and Salim, the more complex his moral and political dilemmas become – he must decide whether to do what is best for him and his family or for the lives of innocent people. Ultimately, Younes undergoes a political awakening as he transforms from apolitical chancer to daring Resistance fighter.
Whilst rather pedestrian in plot and pace, Tahar Rahim remains as magnetic as ever as the poker faced and understated Younes whom proves actions speak louder than words. In lesser hands his character could easily fail to engage viewers.
There is lack of tension throughout the film until it heads towards its finale. Free Men is not a bonafide war film for the purists but neither is it a stereotypical depiction of occupied Paris as the city is depicted in bright colours and people are shown going about their daily lives amidst the atrocities. There is still enough espionage and heroism to keep it intriguing.
You have to praise the director for highlighting this unfamiliar political situation when Muslims helped Jews escape Nazi persecution and the Algerians set their sights on gaining independence from France. The ongoing Arab Spring highlights the relevancy of Free Men and proves people really do have the power.
Originally filmed in 2:35:1 aspect ratio and presented here on DVD in 16:9, Free Men depicts Nazi-occupied Paris in sharp contrast and awash with colour – not your usual stereotypical image of this dark period in French history.
Two options available: Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo 2.0. Salim’s songs feature heavily in the film’s soundtrack and his vocals and percussive backing are clear and accentuated in the films audio track. Featuring English subtitles.
The single layer Region 2 disc comes with just a couple of extras: an interesting interview with director Ismaël Ferroukhi and a theatrical trailer. It’s a real shame they couldn’t get a historian’s perspective on the events that took place.
Also available on Blu-ray.