Les hommes libres | Free Men
DIRECTOR: Ismaël Ferroukhi | WRITERS: Alain-Michel Blanc, Ismaël Ferroukhi | CAST: Tahar Rahim, Michael Lonsdale, Mahmoud Shalaby, Lubna Azabal, Christopher Buchholz, Farid Larbi, Stéphane Rideau, François Delaive | France
On paper, Les hommes libres would seem to have much to recommend it: it’s Ismaël Ferroukhi’s delayed second film after his promising 2004 debut Le grand voyage, it stars Tahar Rahim who was so extraordinary in Un prophète, and it tells the little known (to me) story of the Grand Mosque of Paris’ role in protecting North African Jews during the Nazi Occupation. So what could go wrong? Almost anything, actually, but what does sink Les hommes libres is an underdeveloped screenplay, an insufficient budget, and Ferroukhi’s lackluster directing. Rahim plays Younes, a recent Algerian immigrant who scratches out a living by selling whatever he can on the black market; swept up in a raid and in danger because of his cousin’s involvement with the Resistance, Younes agrees to inform on the Grand Mosque which the Nazis suspect is harboring Jews and others. Although Younes is apolitical, he soon comes under the spell of a gifted — and very attractive — young singer, Salim (Mahmoud Shalaby), who as fate would have it is a Jew; Younes switches allegiances. There’s a subplot concerning a mysterious woman Younes is attracted to at the mosque, but it’s so underdeveloped that it could be excised completely and no one would notice. Indeed, there’s a barely perceptible homoerotic aspect to Younes’ attraction to Salim that briefly rises to the surface when Younes almost catches Salim and another man in flagrante, but after an uncomfortable wordless couple of seconds the matter is dropped and Salim all but disappears from the movie.
For a film ostensibly packed with incident — unannounced Nazi visits to the Grand Mosque while Jews and others are in hiding there, shoot-outs between the Nazis and the Resistance, the smuggling of a wounded Resistance fighter (Stéphane Rideau) out of a hospital before the Nazis can get to him, smuggling Jews out of the mosque and on towards their escape from Paris — through it all there’s no suspense, no tension, and scene merely follows scene. Tahar Rahim is an economical actor which works to his disadvantage in such an underwritten, flat part; he’s good when he could have been great. The other actors are effective enough, although I quite liked Farid Larbi in the small role of Ali, Younes’ cousin; Stéphane Rideau’s character is not gay (so far as I could tell) and he keeps his clothes on; and Michael Lonsdale does his twee Michael Lonsdale thing, again, and I still don’t know if I’m charmed or irritated by him. I could easily get lost in Mahmoud Shalaby’s eyes; he should patent that color. And a special mention should go to Pinas Cohen who provided Salim’s vocals: I’m not a connoisseur of Arab singing by any means, but Cohen’s vocals were terrific.