Talking Pictures

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Free Men / Les hommes libres

Posted by keith1942 on April 30, 2012


Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit with German visitor at the Mosque


France 2011. In colour, 2.35:1. 99 minutes.

Director: Ismaël Ferroukhi. Written by Alain-Michel Blanc and Ferroukhi.


The film was screened in the European Features Competition at the Bradford International Film Festival. It immediately offers all sort of associations. This is only the director’s second feature: his first in 2004 was the fine Le grand voyage. That film recounted the developing relationship between a Moroccan-French father and son making the Hadj or pilgrimage to Mecca. One of its pleasures was how the film handled the complexities of the contradictions between modern life in urban Europe and the older values of Islam and North African societies. This film also deals with the experiences of North African migrants to France, though it is a period story with a far more complex narrative.

The film is set during World War II. It is 1942, the years of the German occupation and the historic collaboration of Vichy: and the story is based on actual people and events. Here the film crosses over with those of Rachid Bouchareb [Days of Glory / Indigènes 2007 and Outside the Law / Hors-la-loi, 2010]. However, Ferroukhi appears less concerned with the political aspects and devotes more attention to the cultural. The use of North African music is one of the really effective aspects of this film. The protagonist Younes is fictional, and here played by Tahar Rahim. He also brings strong associations from his role in the equally fine A Prophet [Jacques Audiard, Un prophète 2010].

The basic plot is that Younes lives by dealing in black market produce. Caught by the police he is forced to turn informer and spy on the local mosque. Here the leader Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale) appears to enjoy cordial relations with the occupying German authorities. They use him as a conduit for their attempts to influence governments in the Middle East. Meanwhile the police suspect that the Imam at the Mosque is assisting Jewish people with fake identities.

Younes’ position becomes more and more contradictory. He discovers his cousin Ali (Farbid Larbi) is involved in the French Resistance. He strikes up a friendship with a singer Salim ((Mahmud Shalaby), who is possibly both Jewish and homosexual. And he develops an interest in woman living [like many] at the Mosque, Leila (Lubna Azabal).


Younes and Salim


In the plotting Free Men has further similarities to Outside the Law in the way that it uses generic setting and sequences to develop and heighten the excitement of the story. However, whilst Bouchareb’s film opens up the political world of the period, Ferroukhi focuses on the cultural. There are splendid sequences in an Adalusian Club where Salim, an exceptional singer, performs. However, this is not merely entertainment: in one scene he improvises as he sings about the Operation Torch: the allied landings that will drive the Axis from North Africa.

This is another parallel between the two filmmakers as both shed light upon areas and events that has suffered from a historical silence in France. Like Bouchareb, Ferroukhi’s film reminds us that the North Africans fought alongside France with expectations of post-war Freedom. An expectation cruelly denied by an invigorated French neo-colonialism. The film also addresses another set of silences, the collaboration with the Holocaust in France: again, an area which has finally been addressed on film in recent years.

The production values of the film are very good and rather different from Ferroukhi’s earlier Le grand voyage. This is a larger and more expensive production. However, the style is also markedly different, the voyage to the Hadj was presented in a low-key, very personalised manner. Free Men is both larger and grander. I wondered how much of this was due to the collaborators on the film. The cinematography was by Jérôme Alméraz. He is an experienced lighting cameraman, though I have only seen a couple of his films. One was I’ve Loved You so Long (II y a longtemps que je t’aime, 2008) where the filming and use of colour beautifully enchanced the drama of two sisters freeing themselves from the past. There are great visual sequences in this film: apart from the scenes in the clubs there is a memorable travelling shot as Ali and Younes light their way along an underground tunnel. And there are atmospheric sequences on the banks of the Seine.

The editing by Annette Dulertre is also accomplished. At times overlapping sound pulls the characters and the viewer forward into the developing drama. At other times straight cuts change the tempo and raise the dramatic presentation. The music includes a number of traditional North African songs and also a fine score by Amar Amand. If you have developed a taste for North African poetry and music, this is one of the delights of the film, with some exceptionally fine singing. Not all the songs are translated in the subtitles, unfortunately a not uncommon presentation for foreign language films.

As in Le grand voyage, Ferroukhi makes good use of the protagonist’s relationship to the settings. And he fills out the narrative with minor characters whose presence resonates in the story. One is the beggar seen outside the Mosque and reciting passages from the Koran. The whole narrative and presentation makes for a fine, absorbing and dramatic film.


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