A Prophet's Tahar Rahim impresses in this flimsy interpretation of one of the lesser-known subchapters in French WWII history.
Annotating your film’s opening frame with 'inspired by true events' has become a lazy habit of screenwriters and directors, setting alarm bells ringing like a red top hack’s citation of ‘a source’ in the gleeful debagging of some allegedly over-sexed footballer.
With Free Men, director Ismaël Ferroukhi and co-writer Alain-Michel Blanc show they’re not lacking in the imagination department, but their smudging of historical fact seriously undermines their film’s dramatic credentials.
After being caught trousers-down by the Gestapo, young Algerian immigrant Younes (Tahar Rahim) is threatened with deportation unless he can infiltrate a Parisian mosque that’s been blacklisted as a Resistance hotspot. Inside the walls of this majestic sanctum, Younes uncovers a fully-fledged Islamic liberation outfit, inconspicuously fronted by a sagacious senior rector (Michael Lonsdale). But he proves to be a lousy informant and is cut loose by the investigating Nazi officer (and inexplicably left to walk free), allowing him to ally himself with this Muslim brotherhood.
In an echo of his outstanding breakthrough performance in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Rahim makes the sharp transition from illiterate pawn to quick-witted knight with confidence and poise. Not so convincing are his character’s motives. Though his faintly homoerotic acquaintance with a persecuted Jewish singer (Mahmud Shalaby) accounts for his initial commitment to the freedom fighters, it’s never clear to what extent Younes actually believes in their cause.
Ferroukhi’s intention is to set the record straight over the long-debated sheltering of North African Jews during World War II by Muslim insurgents. But with few surviving witnesses and little in the way of handwritten accounts to go by, the director resorts to fleshing his film out with distracting dramatic
pivots and a dead-end romantic subplot involving an underused Lubna Azabal. Free Men is well-acted and entirely watchable, but has to go down as a rather flimsy interpretation of one of the lesser-known subchapters in French history.
All eyes on A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim in this Resistance-era drama.
Passionate if insubstantial period piece. Rahim is the real deal, though.
We weren’t expecting The Sorrow and the Pity, but stronger emphasis on historical truth would shore up this admirable revisionist fable.