|Tahar Rahim stars in director IsmaÃ«l Ferroukhi’s “Free Men” as an unemployed Algerian spying for the Nazis in Occupied France, but who soon turns into freedom fighter instead.|
If you saw the much-praised French gangster film “A Prophet,” you will remember Tahar Rahim’s brilliantly chilling performance as Malik, the young man who adapts only too well to the brutal rules of prison life. Rahim appears as a very different type in “Free Men,” currently screening in New York. This solidly suspenseful, if uninspiring, film is set in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942, and focuses on the community of largely Algerian immigrant workers who found support at the Grand Mosque of Paris. They came there to pray, of course, but also to talk, to rest, and to enjoy the peace of the gardens.
Rahim plays Younes, an apolitical cynic who makes a living as a black marketeer. Although his cousin Ali is a committed communist and anti-colonialist, Younes makes it clear that his only interest is making enough money to go home someday as a success.
Michael Lonsdale is well familiar to U.S. audiences. He was the relentless detective in “Day of the Jackal” and the evil Hugo Drax in the James Bond film “Moonraker.” He gave a trulty moving performance in the French film “Of Gods and Men,” and he is again playing a real religious figure, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, in “Free Men.” Ben Ghabrit was the founder and director of the mosque.
Once more, Lonsdale is the worldly charmer who flatters the German officers as he escorts them about the grounds and manipulates them into ignoring what is going on below stairs in the mosque’s underground caverns. There, the film suggests, Algerian and North African Jews surreptitiously receive identity certificates as Muslims in order to escape apprehension.
When Younes is picked up by the Vichy police for selling black-market goods, he agrees to keep an eye on the goings-on at the mosque in exchange for avoiding jail time. He is not a very skillful spy, but his snooping on a rising young Arab singer makes the difference in his attitude. The character Salim Halili (the actor Mahmoud Shalaby is an Israeli Arab) is also based on a real singer and musician who testified that he was rescued by people at the Paris mosque. Salim would be in danger of persecution by the Nazis for two reasons-he is a Jew and he is gay. He and Younes become friends, and Younes is moved slowly and reluctantly to become more involved with the French Resistance – not by Salim only, but by his cousin and a young woman he admires.
Like many French films about World War II, “Free Men” is circumspect about the French collaboration with the Germans. Not surprisingly, the French want to focus on their more admirable qualities, so there is a strong leftist perspective to the storytelling. The Arabs are very poor and very poorly treated. The communists – who, it bears remembering, were the primary resistors to the Nazis – either believe or encourage the Arabs to believe that they will all battle for Algerian freedom once the war against fascism is won. As viewers, we know that is not what happened, although the leader of the Free French Army Charles de Gaulle did eventually leave Algeria. Director and co-writer IsmaÃ«l Ferroukhi does not belabor the point, but it is impossible to avoid thinking about the current situation between Jews and Muslims in France today. Most hail from the same North African countries, share a similar culture and perhaps language, and are struggling to find a place for themselves in France.
Wartime is always confusing. Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit received a medal for his work for the Resistance, but he supported French colonial control in North Africa. Some people insist that thousands of Jews were protected by the mosque, others that it was no more than a few dozen.
“Free Men” is not one of the great French war films, but it is a well-made and absorbing small drama about an almost totally unknown anecdote in the Shoah saga. Whether it was hundreds or a handful, it does not hurt to tell of a time and place where Muslims helped Jews.