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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

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