In war, there are many indignant grey areas suppressed from widespread knowledge, tacit actualities that rarely see the light of day. Whilst Jeremy Isaacs’ gloriously outdated World at War series and Downfall (2004) skits are enough for some, there are a handful of discerning filmmakers dead-set on calling attention to the tales of the unsung. Released next week on DVD, French-Moroccan director Ismaël Ferroukhi presents Free Men (2011); a slow-burning footnote of political insurgence within Paris’ Muslim community.
As with many wartime adaptations, the term ‘historical’ is loosely applied around overtly fictional characters. Thankfully for Ferroukhi, he recruited Tahar Rahim – still spiralling from public vertigo with the overwhelming commercial feats of Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) – as his apolitically-motivated Algerian protagonist, Younes. Set against the Nazi-occupied backdrop of 1942 Paris, Younes’ intentions to smuggle contraband are swiftly thwarted by local authorities, whom subsequently force the young immigrant to become a police informant.
Younes is charged with reporting back on the goings on at Paris’s central mosque – suspected to be a safe haven for North African Jews. During his operation, Younes formulates close ties to a Jewish singer Salim (played by the gooey-eyed Mahmud Shalaby) who, along with an Arab resistance member, pry open our lead’s eyes to the idea of political freedom. Based upon the realities of Paris’ Grand Mosque supplying forged legal papers to Jewish fugitives, Ferroukhi approaches Free Men with compassionate subtlety and candid observation.
The unquestionable talent of Rahim is paraded by a solid supporting cast as they incessantly juggle both fear and radical thinking with a single expression. Yet it’s the film’s fictional flamboyancy, the deceptive melodrama, that unhinges the intended message. While its tight budget has been rinsed well and truly on exemplary, paradisaical cinematography and (most likely) Rahim’s involvement, the jejune narrative – at times – feels almost too unrealised and ambiguous.
What Free Men illustrates is the budding adroitness of Ferroukhi as political partisan, a coherent writer and competent director. However, what Free Men fails to illustrate is the flowering of Ferroukhi’s labours. Let’s hope this is able to present itself in his later productions.