When politics gets personal
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 4, 2012
Set in the community of Arab immigrants in Nazi-occupied Paris, "Free Men" is not just another Holocaust drama. The facts it dramatizes - about how the head of that city's Grand Mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, sheltered Arab Jews from the Germans - are little known enough to make the film stand out in a crowded field. And the central performance by Tahar Rahim ("A Prophet"), playing an Algerian immigrant who slowly becomes radicalized, is strong and memorable.
Although the character of Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale) is based on a historical figure, Rahim's Younes is not. It is around this young man that the events of the film (written by director Ismael Ferroukhi and Alain-Michel Blanc) unfold, transforming Younes from an apolitical black marketeer to an impassioned freedom fighter.
His metamorphosis is slow and gradual. As the film opens, Younes has been recruited as a spy by the French police, who suspect Ben Ghabrit of issuing fake paperwork certifying Jews as Muslims and of sheltering them in the basement of his mosque. Younes isn't exactly a collaborator, preferring expedience over taking sides. "Why fight?" he asks his cousin Ali (Farid Larbi), a member of the Resistance. "It's not our war."
Can there be any doubt that it will become his, soon enough?
The circumstances that produce the change in Younes are manifold, beginning with his friendship with Salim (Mahmoud Shalaby), an Arab singer who turns out to be hiding a couple of secrets. The political, as so often happens, is personal here. And Younes's other relationships - not just with Salim, but with a mysterious woman he meets at the mosque (Lubna Azabal) and a Jewish war orphan (Louna Klanit) - bring the abstract politics of the period home to the film's hero, as well as to its audience.
"Free Men" isn't a conventional thriller. There are moments of suspense and intrigue, but they are few and far between.
Mainly, it's a psychological drama, on an intimate scale. It might be set during one of the most momentous periods of the 20th century, but "Free Men" is less interested in the sweep of history than in how one man's self-interest melts away - through the warmth of human connection - to become self-sacrifice.