Free Men (Les Hommes libres): Film Review

French-Muslim Resistance tale tackles an intriguing subject with little panache.

The evolution of a young Algerian immigrant from illiterate factory worker to full-fledged freedom fighter in France during World War II is by far the most compelling aspect of writer-director Ismael Ferroukhi’s second feature.

PARIS — Free Men (Les Hommes libres) tells the little known story of a handful of Muslim agents who fought for the French Resistance, and who used the Mosque of Paris as the base for operations that included rescuing Jewish fugitives and assassinating Vichy informants. For this reason alone, writer-director Ismael Ferroukhi’s second feature is worth a look, though it’s unfortunately a far too academic affair that never surges with the suspense of many a WWII drama. Despite the presence of stars Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) and Michael Lonsdale (Of Gods and Men), these fighters may have a hard time busting out of Gaul. Pyramide will release locally in late September.

“Inspired by true stories,” as the opening credits claim, Free Men follows the travails of a young Algerian immigrant, Younes (Rahim), who at the start of the film tries to make a dime peddling black market goods during the Nazi occupation. When he’s arrested and threatened with torture or worse, Younes accepts to spy on the elite community hidden with the pristine walls of the Mosque of Paris, whose rector, Ben Ghabrit (Lonsdale), is suspected of providing Jews with false identification papers.

Yet once Younes is exposed to the calm, ritualistic world of the Mosque – which stands as a sort of oasis amid the murderous Vichy regime – he begins to have a change of heart. His burgeoning friendship with a cabaret singer (Mahmoud Shalaby) mixed up in various underground affairs eventually pushes Younes to join the good fight against the Germans. The evolution he makes from illiterate factory worker to full-fledged freedom fighter is by far the most compelling aspect in an otherwise plodding screenplay (co-written with Alain-Michel Blanc, The Concert).

Rather than filling his narrative with the seething tension of such Resistance classics as Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Army of Shadowsor Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, Ferroukhi lets his characters get tangled in way too much expository dialogue, while the film’s first real action sequence doesn’t kick in until after the one-hour mark. Shot on a small budget (8€ million, $11.4 million) for a period piece, the drama is generally restricted to indoor settings and takes on the routine stylings of a TV movie, failing to provide the general sense of danger that’s needed for such genre material.

Like the hero he played in A Prophet, Rahim portrays an uneducated thug who manages to find his true calling with the help of his Muslim brothers. But while the French-Algerian actor has an undeniable screen presence that recalls a young Robert De Niro, he never gets the chance to showcase the emotional energy of his previous role.

As the crafty Ben Ghabrit, Lonsdale is, like always, a pleasure to watch, though his screen time seems limited considering the historical importance of his character. Shalaby (Jaffa) is engaging as the tortured singer, while Lubna Azabal (Incendies) is underused as a résistantehidden behind a hijab.

Venue: Paris Cinema Festival
Production companies: Pyramide Productions, France 3 Cinema, Solaire Productions, V.M.P.
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Michael Lonsdale, Mahmoud Shalaby, Lubna Azabal, Christopher Buchholz, Farid Larbi, Stephane Rideau
Director: Ismael Ferroukhi
Screenwriters: Ismael Ferroukhi, Alain-Michel Blanc
Producer: Fabienne Vonier
Executive producer: Stephane Parthenay
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designer: Thierry François
Costume designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Annette Dutertre
Sales agent: Pyramide International
No rating, 105 minutes