French cinema seems never to tire of tales of wartime resistance and fightback, and ‘Free Men’ is a minor addition to the genre, which has recently welcomed superior films such as ‘Days of Glory’ and ‘The Army of Crime’. Tahar Rahim (‘A Prophet’) is Younes, a self-serving but essentially decent Algerian black marketeer in occupied Paris in 1942. When he’s arrested and forced into becoming a police informer, spying on a local mosque suspected of ties with the Jewish community, Younes develops a new perspective on the Islamic and Jewish experience. His mind turns to resistance and the goal of Algerian independence.
Younes forms two key friendships: one with mosque director Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale, swapping one set of religious garb for another – he played a priest in ‘Of Gods and Men’); the other with a young singer, Salim (Mahmoud Shalaby). When the Nazis begin to round up Jewish citizens and clamp down on those who harbour them, Younes’s collaboration becomes potentially fatal.
Younes is pragmatic and malleable rather than bursting with any special ideals or energy, which is surely realistic. It’s a problem for the film, though, as this young man sometimes feels like a neutral, fresh-faced tour guide to the theatres of his story – the mosque, the police station, the dangerous streets, the meeting place of the Algerian resistance movement and various bars and clubs – rather than someone we really want to spend the war with, despite Rahim’s easy presence. Viewing the period from the perspective of North African immigrants in Pars is a fresh angle, but director Ismaël Ferroukhi fails to communicate much of the fear and paranoia of living in an occupied city.