Although the film “Free Men” was made in France last year and opens here on Friday, March 16, it feels a lot older. In some ways, that’s not a bad thing. Director Ismail Ferroukhi turned to the straightforward, linear narrative style of the place and period in which the film is set, Paris under the Nazi occupation, and to a subdued palette that gently suggests the black-and-white films of the era. It features an old-fashioned kind of storytelling that makes “Free Men” feel as comfortable as a pair of beloved old bedroom slippers, an effect one suspects Ferroukhi was seeking.
The story, which is based on actual events, involves a young Algerian émigré, Younes (Tahar Rahim), whose rather clumsy black-market efforts place him in the thrall of a French police detective who uses him as a snitch inside the Paris Mosque. There he becomes involved with Si Khadour Ben Ghabrit (Michel Lonsdale), the mosque’s director, who is hiding North African Jews and members of the Resistance from the round-ups. He also befriends Salim Hallali, a brilliant young singer who is a Jew passing for Muslim. Gradually, Younes’ loyalties are engaged by these people, and his usefulness as an informant is nil.
This is, in a sense, an old story, that of the cynical man who finds a cause worth risking everything for. It’s “Casablanca,” to name only the most obvious and popular example. Younes isn’t as old or as world-weary as Rick Blaine, and he doesn’t have a political past from which he has turned away, but the type is fairly universal.
It’s a truism but nonetheless accurate that a period-set film is about the period in which it is made, not the period in which it ostensibly takes place. That’s what makes Ferroukhi’s aesthetic choices so telling. At a time when Jewish-Muslim relations are, at best, embattled and even embittered, when neo-Nazism is on the rise across Europe and anti-Semites in the Muslim community are at their loudest, a time when North Africa is experiencing the ambiguities of new democracies, Ferroukhi harkens back to an era in which a common Fascist enemy brought at least some Muslims and some Jews together for self-preservation.
By offering the familiar trajectory of this story, with few concessions to the contemporary political scene (there is a gay character and he is not judged), Ferroukhi asks his audiences to think back to a time when it was easier to tell who your enemies were. They were the guys in bad haircuts, wearing leather trenchcoats or Wehrmacht and SS uniforms. The film pays lip service to Algerian and Moroccan anti-colonialism, but when, after the Liberation, Younes picks up an Algerian flag abandoned in the dust of what was once a Resistance hideout, it is impossible to ignore the reality that Algeria would not achieve independence for nearly two more decades, at the price of yet more bloodshed.
That said, “Free Men” works rather nicely as a genre piece. It doesn’t carry the emotional wallop of “Casablanca” and the few other WWII films that still hold up, but it is briskly worked-out, with a decent suspense quotient. Rahim, who made his breakthrough in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” is an engaging screen presence. As long as he keeps that baby face of his, he’ll be playing these dark coming-of-age films for some time to come. As Ben Ghabrit, Lonsdale is his usual masterful self. One of the truly great character actors of the past half-century, his performance is an acting clinic, a delicious blend of gravitas and shrewdness, unshakeable in his convictions but smart enough to make them a reality.
“Free Men” is only Ferroukhi’s second theatrical feature, but it has a self-assurance that suggests he is a filmmaker worth following in the future. If he seems a bit naïve politically, at least his beliefs are based in a shared humanity rather than violent triumphalism.
“Free Men” opens on Friday, March 16 at the Lincoln Plaza (62nd St. and Broadway) and the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). It will also be shown in the New York Sephardic Film Festival (see story about the festival on page 36).