Saturday, March 17, 2012

Free Men (Les Hommes Libres)

Freedom As The Goal Regardless Of The Ally, In 1942

Tahar Rahim as Younes and Mahmoud Shalaby (right) as Salim in Ismaël Ferroukhi's drama "Free Men". 
Film Movement


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, March 17
, 2012

Ismaël Ferroukhi's drama
"Free Men", which opened exclusively in New York City yesterday at the Quad Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, is set in German-occupied Paris in 1942 and tracks tensions and alliances among and between Muslim, French and Jewish people amidst Nazi menace.  Younes (Tahar Rahim) is an apathetic Algerian immigrant living in France, who is asked by the police to spy on a Parisian mosque allegedly harboring Muslim freedom fighters and giving fake identifications to Jewish people from Northern Africa.

Based on true events, "Free Men", a tight, efficient film, is perhaps too economical for its own good.  The film gives little more than a cursory glance at the situations on offer by truncating story lines so that the mood of the film feels rushed rather than developed or fomented.  "Free Men" needed to breathe, and while it stops to explore Younes's admiration for and budding friendship with a Jewish singer named Salim (Mahmoud Shalaby), a man hiding out in the Mosque, the film lack a compelling sense of drama and power typical of many dramas of this genre.  Salim is treated by the film as a symbol, a prophet of compassion, a talisman for your sympathy and feeling.  His eyes cry out for your pity, a tragic figure caught between two worlds. 

Mr. Ferroukhi's film feels tentative, unsure and unfocused in numerous instances.  There's a subplot involving a woman who is a Muslim freedom fighter and Communist that Younes has a romantic eye for, and when "Free Men" seems to head in that direction, it quickly yanks back its own tenuous reigns to abandon the notion of romance.  It's as if Mr. Ferroukhi had too many balls in the air to juggle, and only a short time to juggle them.  When one ball drops the director leaves it and moves on to the next.  There are however, moments of tension and suspense in one or two scenes, and occasions where "Free Men" begins to earn its stripes.  With the ebbs and flows however, these occasions are regrettably few and far between.

On several occasions one or two actors paper over the lack of substance in "Free Men" with good performances, notably the ever-reliable Michael Lonsdale as the mosque's rector.  Even in his relatively short time on screen here Mr. Lonsdale lends gravitas to a film dominated by his top-heavy performance, and that's a compliment to him, but not to the film.  Mr. Rahim, so great in his first lead role in the magnificent "A Prophet" (2009), here has to play a man suddenly pushed into responsibility, and his friendship with a talented singer is supposed to be the impetus for a new, galvanizing action but the relationship is often too distant in relation to the rest of the film's events to be dynamic enough for us to care.  The film forces its tropes on us without adequately building the screenplay to enforce them suitably, leaving a naked, hollow film, a celluloid emperor without clothes.

I didn't believe the apathetic Younes would suddenly take up the mantle to protect Salim's true identity as a Jewish man from the Nazis and save many other Jewish people.  There's little development of Younes's changes in philosophy, and instead "Free Men" employs conventional dramatic shifts to expediently push its specious narrative in a new and uncertain direction.  Mr. Rahim is a blank slate here, and whereas in the near-three-hour "A Prophet" his character graduates to levels of profound understanding and rigorous on-the-job adaptation, here Younes is staid and robotic if not inanimate.  Mr. Rahim himself seems to be going through the motions, as does "Free Men", which tries to show a Nazi colonel and negotiator as a nuanced and compassionate man but because the film is rushed the instance of rare dimension in villainy looks like tokenism.  (By contrast, "Miracle At St. Anna" does better at nuance in Nazis.)  "Free Men" also shows that some Muslims aren't to be trusted either.

By its end "Free Men" is fatigued, ending abruptly as if to catch its own breath or take a nap.  As a period drama it tries to do too much and ends up doing very little.  To be fair, shoehorning romance, friendship, drama and political conscience growth amidst a war drama seamlessly and with conviction in barely an hour and a half is a big ask.  Such subject matter requires more care and deliberation.  These true-life events, having not been told before to the best of my recollection in a feature film, needed more exposition and a longer running time, such time worthy of an epic rather than a mere 98 minutes, for a deeper, more substantial and complex portrayal of the events and relationships on screen. 

"Free Men" is a chronicle of a young Algerian man's political awakening rather than of free men.   The term 'free men', as espoused in Mr. Ferroukhi's film, is a metaphor for a freeing of Younes from apathy.  That is the impression I was left with.  While it is true that some of the film's scenes show examples of the courage of free men in risking their lives to do things to free others, "Free Men" doesn't have enough overall courage to be anything other than a standard run-of-the-mill period drama.  The axiom of "none are free until all are free" is the film's overarching point but what should have been a stronger film is unfortunately a slight and almost forgettable experience.

With: Lubna Azabal, Christopher Buchholz.

"Free Men" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America but contains the kind of bloody violence typically expected in World War II dramas.  The film is in the French language with English subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and 38 minutes.

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