A nobel cause discards morality
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, February 11, 2011
For all the commotion it has kicked up, the Algerian film “Outside the Law” feels more like a fictional war saga than an overt political message. While the movie, which follows the final years of France’s colonial rule over Algeria, doesn’t do the French government any favors, director Rachid Bouchareb also doesn’t romanticize the revolutionaries.
But abroad, the contender for a Best Foreign Film Oscar finds itself dogged by layers of scandal. Politicians deemed the work “anti-French” and historically inaccurate, and hundreds protested the movie’s premiere at Cannes. Meanwhile, the Academy ignored the similarly themed and well-received French film “Of Gods and Men.”
Despite the hubbub, the film feels like a thoughtful piece of fiction. The revolution is seen through the microcosm of three Algerian brothers, chronicling how their lives diverge and intersect following the excruciating 1945 massacre at Setif, in which police fire into a crowd of demonstrators and bodies line the streets after men are rounded up and shot seemingly at random. While all three survive the harrowing ordeal, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is imprisoned, Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) joins the army and Said (Jamel Debbouze) moves with the trio’s mother to France, where he grows a smarmy mustache and embraces a lucrative if unsavory profession that involves prostitutes, a cabaret club and boxing. The three are reunited at a shantytown in Paris, where they take varying roles in reclaiming Algeria’s independence.
While Said prefers to stay out of revolutionary activity, the intellectual Abdelkader becomes a key player in the FLN (National Liberation Front), while Messaoud unwittingly finds himself in the role of an enforcer. While the quest appears to be an honorable one and the French police are depicted as brutal, all three brothers have a ruthless side. Any man who doesn’t adhere to their code gets a death sentence.
Bouajila does a tremendous job as the cool-headed ringleader, emotionless in the face of death and impenetrable to distractions, even blond Parisians. When the police bomb his shantytown, he’s analytic, saying simply: “They’re provoking us. We’ll react.” He manages to justify his terrorism by appealing to “a cause higher than ourselves.”
While the story has the sprawling feel of an epic tale, the first half of the film often jumps forward in time in distracting short intervals. And some of these short, explanatory scenes feel heavy-handed and could have used a good edit.
Even so, and regardless of country of origin or Oscar worthiness, “Outside the Law” is a perceptive piece of cinema, in which every flawed character thinks his cause is noble, but no one would be mistaken for moral.
Contains bloody violence.