Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi)-- Film Review

An engrossing, fair-minded account of Algeria's struggle for independence reflected in the travails of a single Algerian family.

CANNES -- Following his "Days of Glory," which dealt with the sacrifices of indigenous soldiers fighting in the French army during World War II, a logical and natural step for Rachid Bouchareb is to tell the story next of Algeria's struggle for independence in the years following 1945. "Outside the Law" takes a clear-eyed and often challenging approach to the many controversies still surrounding these historical events by focusing on three Algerian brothers who react to the liberation movement in different ways.

The film has sparked right-wing demonstrations and protests here in Cannes, almost entirely by people who, at least at this point in time, haven't seen the film. While it's doubtful that any representation of the fight for Algeria's independence would satisfy these protesters, even they might be surprised by Bouchareb's even-handed approach.

When the film gets released in France on Sept. 22, these controversies will undoubtedly add to an expected strong boxoffice. Bouchareb's growing and deserved reputation ensues plenty of penetration for "Outside the Law" in other markets in Europe and elsewhere, including North America.

Bouchareb and co-writer Olivier Lorelle say they interviewed many eyewitnesses and researched archives to arrive at dramatic story lines that place all three brothers at the center of events in Algeria and France leading up to Algeria's 1962 independence.

As young boys in 1925, they witness their family being thrown off ancestral land by colonialists. Then they find themselves caught up in an infamous massacre in the Algerian town of Setif on May 8, 1945, where an independence march degenerated into a riot that left thousands dead. The exact count is still a matter of disagreement but an undisputed fact is that the indigenous population suffered a hundred times more casualties than the Europeans.

Boucareb's three main actors from "Days of Glory" take the key roles here. Sami Bouajila's Abdelkader turns to militancy and armed struggle that demands ruthless discipline. Roschdy Zem's Messaoud joins the French army to fight in Indochina. Jamel Debbouze's Said gets involved in crime in sleazy Pigalle nightclubs and boxing gyms in Paris.

Eventually all three brothers and their mother wind up in Paris. As years go by, Abdelkader turns his warrior-brother Messaoud into his enforcer and killer. While he lets Said slide, he nevertheless collects money from his nightclub to help finance the armed struggle.

The French government's brutal response to the independence movement triggers greater bloodshed as the battle comes to French soil. Right-wing militias, aided by the secret service and police, terrorize a North African shantytown on the outskirts of Paris while militant rebels ambush and wipe out a convoy of French soldiers.

Bouchareb is at his best when he shows the corrosive impact of fanaticism on both sides. At one point, Abdelkader threatens even to kill Said until Messaoud intervenes. Mesaoud never is able to enjoy his family and growing son as his life is in the bloody grip of constant violence and death. Algerian liberation groups splinter with murders on every side.

Brutal repression by French police increases their enemy's ranks. A French cop and ex-army colonel (Bernard Blancan) recognizes his own tactics as a former Resistance fighter are being used by Algerians against the French: He sees himself in an enemy he now battles and knows he will never defeat.

The rebels don't lack for French support. A communist printer helps by forging false documents. A young blonde smuggles gobs of money to buy arms. She would like to do more for Abdelkader but he's too caught up in extremism to yield to anything that suggests tenderness or affection.

Everyone's life gets sacrificed to a "cause." Consequently, Bouchareb refuses to see bad guys or good. Rather, in his accounting, the liberation movement poisons everyone. Certainly he recognizes that torturers and criminals work on both sides of the battle, but his main characters are all utterly destroyed by a vicious cycle of atrocities and reprisals.

As with "Days of Glory," production values are superb with Christophe Beaucarne's moody cinematography and Yannick Kergoat's astute editing making a long film utterly absorbing from first minute to last.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Competition
Sales: StudioCanal
Production companies: Tessalit Productions/Tassili Films/Novak Prod./Quinta Communications
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan, Chafia Boudraa, Sabrina Seyvecou, Assaad Bouab
Director: Rachid Bouchareb
Screenwriters: Rachid Bouchareb, Olivier Lorelle
Producer: Jean Brehat
Executive producer: Muriel Merlin
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Taieb Jallouli
Music: Armand Amar
Costume designer: Edith Vesperini
Editor: Yannick Kergoat
No rating, 137 minutes