An art film with ample action, "Free Men" is a gem of a historical drama. The setting is Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942, particularly, a stunning mosque where Younes, a self-assured Algerian immigrant, is employed by the French authorities to spy.
Soon after we see Younes selling black market goods to poor immigrants (memorably and perhaps implausibly one man offers his valuable drum in exchange for a pack of cigarettes), his residence building is raided and his illegal status and activity are discovered. A merciless French policeman tells him he can keep his business if he cooperates with their demands. At first, it isn’t clear what exactly the authorities are after- scenes between them and Younes are minimal- but as Younes becomes more immersed in the workings of the mosque, it is revealed that mosque authorities are abetting Muslim Resistance fighters and helping to conceal the identity of North African Jews by providing them with false certificates. The film follows Younes’s development from a politically disengaged man bent on saving money to return to his homeland to a conscientious fighter invested in the resistance.
This gripping story is based on actual events that unfolded at the Grand Mosque in Paris during World War II, and it’s a truly moving bit of history that is unknown to many. One integral character, Kaddour Ben Gabrit, the director of the mosque, is based on an actual person whose remarkable deeds during the war became known to film director Ismael Ferroukhi when an intimate friend revealed that this man had saved his Jewish grandmother during the war. For Ferroukhi, this revelation and an article he read about the Grand Mosque’s activities during the war were the impetus for this project.
The other character who is key in Younes’s involvement is the magnetic singer/musician Salim whom Younes encounters on his initial trip to the mosque. This handsome man with intense eyes and unflappable passion instantly befriends the naïve Younes, who wants to sell him the drum he acquired in the film’s opening scene. It is through Salim that Younes gets drawn into the clandestine activities of the mosque. Before long he learns that Salim, who sings Arabic songs for the French, is actually Jewish (he also seems to be gay but we only learn this through a suggestion later in the film, though one may imagine a greater intimacy between the two men earlier on).
Of course, these revelations would be eagerly welcomed by the French authorities, but Younes evolves from a hesitant informer to a dropout, at considerable peril. From his first report, we can read the conflict on his face, and this doesn’t seem to escape the policemen who demand full disclosure from him. As Younes becomes more involved, the film evolves from a lightly suspenseful drama about a simple man entering a strange realm to a high caliber thriller in which Younes’s help harboring Jewish orphans and delivering false certificates, among other things, earns him Nazi target status.
By the end, "Free Men" is deeply fulfilling, as a sumptuous, well-acted historical suspense story. Both Tahar Rahim as Younes and Mahmoud Shalaby as Salim are stellar at portraying men determined to live fully and passionately in a decaying environment.
"0Free Men" opens April 6 at Lumiere Cinema in San Francisco and Shattuck in Berkeley.
Younes :: Tahar Rahim
Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit :: Michael Lonsdale
Salim Halali :: Mahmud Shalaby
Leila :: Lubna Azabal
Ali :: Farid Larbi
Francis :: éphane Rideau
Le chef de la Gestapo :: Francois Delaive
Le policier moustachu :: Jean-Pierre Becker
Maryvonne :: Marie Berto
Omar :: Zakariya Gouram
Le Major von Ratibor :: Christopher Buchholz
L'inspecteur :: Bruno Fleury
Larbi :: Slimane Dazi
Screenwriter, ël Ferroukhi; Screenwriter, Alain-Michel Blanc; Producer, Fabienne Vonier; Original Music, Armand Amar; Cinematographer, érôme éras; Film Editor, Annette Dutertre; Casting, Brigitte Moidon; Set Decoration, Catherine Jarrier-Prieur; Costume Designer, Virginie Montel.