After losing their family home in Algeria in the 1920s, three brothers and their mother are scattered across the globe. Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) joins the French army fighting in Indochina; Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) becomes a leader of the Algerian independence movement in France and Saïd (Jamel Debbouze) moves to Paris to make his fortune in the shady clubs and boxing halls of Pigalle. Gradually, their interconnecting destinies reunite them in the French capital, where freedom is a battle to be fought and won.
FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: Five years ago French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb made Days of Glory (2006, Indigenes), a film about the mistreatment of North African soldiers from the French colonies who enlisted to fight for the Allies during World War II. Crafted with sensitivity, well acted, handsome looking, with a strong script, it was a good, solid picture that took its time to make its political point. It was a melodrama in the tradition of a Hollywood '30s 'problem picture’; it was out to shed light on a terrible wrong and its style was essentially ironic. What was so good about Days of Glory was the fact that Bouchareb was able to construct his bold political message in a style that was persuasive.
His new film Outside the Law has the same passion, drive and dignity as Days of Glory, though it’s simply not as powerful, nor as persuasive, as drama. Like Days of Glory, it’s a 'message’ movie, a period piece that aims to revise the history surrounding the revolutionary tactics used by Algerian nationalists against the French in the decades after WWII.
It’s constructed as a family saga and opens with a prologue full of tears and outrage; a peasant family of Algerian/Arab descent is evicted from their home and their land confiscated by colonists. That family has three brothers and the story picks up as WWII ends: Said (Jamel Debbouze) grows up to be a pimp and wannabe boxing promoter; Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), an intellectual, serves time for sedition, and once released, joins the fight against the French; and Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), who enlists in the French Army and fights a losing battle in Indochina. The action shifts to Paris, where the family ends up in an Algerian camp, a place of terrible poverty. Much of the melodrama of the film revolves around Abdelkader nagging his brothers into action. Messaoud joins the fight, once he comes back from Vietnam, a jaded and disillusioned soldier. Said, reluctant to engage in direct action, sees the propaganda potential in his ambition; he wants to train the first Algerian boxing champ and win a title.
Bouchareb and co-screenwriter Olivier Lorelle construct the action of the revolutionary characters as a series of desperate moves, driven by hot-blooded emotion – revenge against colonialist bloodshed and the steady erosion of human rights (rather than steely political pragmatism). This makes the movie feel a bit cartoony. It’s like Oliver Stone on a bad day, minus the camera pyrotechnics.
This kind of storytelling squanders the possibilities for constructing a really complex view of both family life and the wider culture under colonialist politics. The fact that each of the brother’s position in life perfectly expresses a social/political stream of consciousness in this context is economical, neat, and fluent. But it doesn’t deepen the film; it flattens it out. We don’t have a chance to absorb, calculate and participate in the action as equal players. What takes primacy in our viewing of the film is the need for the brothers to be once more a unit; if they’re together the revolution has got a chance! It’s like all Bouchareb wants from us is to cheer on his trio of good guys. This feeling increases once Faivre (Bernard Blancan), a French policeman, enters the narrative. A stern character with a comical tough-guy moustache, Faivre forms a secret squad of cops who operate outside the law to combat the insurrectionists. Still, there is one fascinating subplot here that deals with the complex morality at play; there is a factional fight between the National Liberation Front members. But Bouchareb doesn’t seem to want to linger over any queasy questions about morality, practical necessity, ego and personal power that arise in any war theatre, whether the combat is conventional or guerilla. Here, the gun and the revolution settle all arguments.
What’s made the film controversial in world media (including the U.S.) and especially in France is that Bouchareb has his Algerian heroes draw an historical analogy between their fight and the Resistance movement against the Nazis. This has moved some pundits to argue that by extension Outside the Law is an apologia for all terrorist activity, whatever the cause. This kind of critique seems a little misplaced. To be sure the movie is a powerful, emotional testimony to anti-colonialism. But that’s hardly cause for hysteria.
In the end it’s a modest piece, a spectacular action movie with a somber message, delivered in a blunt style aimed at convincing the already converted. Not unlike a lot of high-minded Hollywood movies, no?