Outside the Law, epic drama, not rated, in French with subtitles, The Screen, 2.5 chiles Watching Outside the Law, the Oscar-nominated drama about the struggle for Algerian independence, it is hard not to consider it in the context of the revolution that has been playing out in Tahrir Square and throughout the rest of Egypt. The Algerian struggle lasted a lot longer and claimed many more lives. But that’s more the traditional template in a fight for liberation.
Rachid Bouchareb, a French director of Algerian descent, earned a previous Oscar nomination for Days of Glory, his 2006 film about the Algerian troops who fought as second-class citizens for France in World War II. Here he picks up pretty much where that one left off, with the Allied victory in Europe and the concurrent outbreak of a nationalist uprising in Algeria.
First there’s a prologue. It’s 1925, and colonial officials arrive at the hardscrabble farm of a dirt-poor Algerian family to evict them from their ancestral land so that some French can move in. The dispossessed are a father, a mother, and three young sons, and as they pack their possessions onto a donkey cart and leave, they scoop up a kerchief full of the dry dust that’s rightfully theirs, and bitterly vow that someday they will return.
Skip forward 20 years to newsreel footage of the celebrations in Paris at the end of the war, and cut to the Algerian town of Sétif, where aroused patriots are thronging the streets in a march for independence from their French overlords. The boys are grown now, and we meet them as Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), the eldest; Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), the intense intellectual who as a boy wore glasses and was first in his class at
school; and Saïd ( Jamel Debbouze), the one-armed hustler. The peaceful march is set upon by the French and turned into a massacre. Bouchareb’s vision of how things happened that day has been disputed by some historians, but his point is clear: this is how people get radicalized.
Jump ahead again to 1953 (much of the 37-year span of this film is spent jumping ahead and identifying the new time and place), and Messaoud is in the French army in Vietnam, Abdelkader is in prison in France for his political activities, and Saïd, after exacting a little revenge on the official who threw the family off the farm, packs up his mother and moves to the outskirts of Paris, where they find shelter in a miserable Algerian shantytown. Here, eventually, the three brothers are reunited. Abdelkader, released from prison, becomes a fiercely committed revolutionary for the FLN (the National Liberation Force for Alegerian independence). Messaoud, released from the army, becomes his sometimes reluctant muscle, torn between a commitment to the revolution and sporadic pangs of conscience at the killing involved, but with a soldier’s proficiency at it. Saïd washes his hands of politics and revolution and parlays a start as a pimp in Pigalle into the proprietorship of a cabaret and a boxing gym. He discovers a young Algerian fighter who could go all the way to the top and pours his energy into managing the kid’s career.
Through more jumps forward, more killing, more radicalization and revenge, and more ideological refinements of the theory and terror tactics of revolution, the movie ushers us toward 1962 and Algerian independence. It does so with a lot of familiar devices. Bouchareb’s film owes debts to gangster classics such as The Godfather and movies like
Jean-Pierre Melville’s great homage to the French Resistance. Bouchareb is at pains to draw the parallel between the Algerian freedom movement and the Resistance, and he lays it out in a scene in which Abdelkader and Messaoud meet in an elegant club with the saturnine French anti-terrorism cop Col. Faivre (Bernard Blancan) and explain their philosophy to him. Faivre is not entirely unsympathetic, but he has his job to do, and his job is to bust their group by any means necessary and kill as many of them as he can.
despite powerful acting in the key roles (Debbouze, Bouajila, and Zem are veterans of Days of Glory, in which they played characters with the same names), conveys very little sense of identifying with or caring for its protagonists. Part of that is the ideological fanaticism that allows them to kill with so little mercy. The French of course kill with just as much brutality, but in this movie we are not supposed to be on the side of the French, so their actions serve merely to confirm their villainy.
Clichés rear their hoary heads too often, and although we are spared people flying through the air away from an explosion, we do not escape the inevitable moment when a character gets into a car and a companion, still on the sidewalk, realizes too late that the vehicle is booby-trapped and screams a warning in vain.
Revolution is a messy business, and one man’s terrorism is another man’s freedom-fighting. Abdelkader is the descendant of Tom Courtenay’s coldly fanatic Pasha in Doctor Zhivago; but despite its moral bona fides, this movie plays out more like a derivative gangster flick than a sweeping epic of revolution.
One-armed and dangerous: Jamel Debbouze, left
In the revolution business: from left, Jamel Debbouze, Sami Bouajila, and Roschday Zem