Free Men

B- Holocaust drama

  • Written by Alain-Michel Blanc and Ismaël Ferroukhi
  • Directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi

I had two reasons to see Free Men, despite my general tiring of Holocaust dramas.

First, at a time when Muslims are vilified, and when Muslims and Jews are portrayed in the media as natural enemies, it’s important to challenge these stereotypes. A story of Muslims among the righteous gentiles–those who risked their own lives to protect Jews from extermination–thus seems timely and necessary.

Second, I’m drawn to stories about ordinary people who, through force of circumstances, become heroes. There’s something inspiring about an initially selfish protagonist who, faced with an unacceptable evil, puts his or her own life on the line to help total strangers. (As I write this, I have not yet seen In Darkness, another recent Holocaust drama with a similar theme.)

In Free Men, the protagonist with the moral dilemma is Younes (Tahar Rahim), an Algerian immigrant and black marketer in Nazi-occupied Paris. When he’s arrested for his crimes, the police (who are collaborating with the Nazis) give him an offer he can’t refuse: He can go free and continue to work the black market if he regularly visits the Grand Mosque of Paris and reports on what he sees.

He finds plenty to report, but can’t bring himself to report it. The mosque is acting as a haven for Jews and other refugees, and is even supplying Jews with new papers free_menidentifying them as Muslims. Younes befriends one of these "new Muslims," a talented and charismatic singer named Salim Halali (an actual historical figure, played here by Mahmud Shalaby). Soon he must decide between the safety of collaboration or doing what is right.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers fail to make Younes an interesting character until quite late in the film. In Rahim’s performance, he comes off as flat and formless. Salim, a hedonist who loves the attention and sex that come with musical popularity, isn’t all that intriguing either, initially. Both characters take some interesting turns as the story develops.

Another problem: A basic plot point– the police’s expectation that Younes will inform–disappears too quickly and easily. It’s as if the screenwriters put their protagonist in a dangerous situation, then arbitrarily ratcheted down the danger.

The film really should have been about Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, another historical figure, played here by the great Michael Lonsdale. The head of the Mosque, he’s an expert diplomat who hobnobs with French officials and SS officers, while secretly doing what he can to save lives. He’s a worldly, diplomatic, religious, and tolerant man daily putting his life on the line for what he clearly sees as God’s work.

Free Men makes some important points. It shows us how an ordinary person can become extraordinary when faced with evil. It counters western society’s prejudicial views of Islam. And it’s a reasonably entertaining, suspenseful motion picture. But it could have been so much better.

Free Men opens Friday at the Lumiere and  Shattuck.