out of Five
Running time: 99
Enjoyable French wartime drama that brings a new perspective to a familiar story and features a compelling central performance from Tahar Rahim, but the plot is occasionally frustrating and appears to lack direction.
What's it all about?
Directed by Ismael Ferroukhi, Free Men (Les hommes libres, original title fans) is based on real events and stars Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) as Younes, a young Algerian immigrant in German-occupied Paris, who makes his living selling black market goods to his fellow North African immigrants. After being arrested, Younes is told he can continue his work if he agrees to spy on the local mosque, where leader Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale) is suspected of both harbouring Jews and providing Jews with false paperwork saying they are Muslims.
When Younes begins hanging out at the mosque, he befriends both gifted singer Salim (Mahmoud Shalaby) and Leila (Lubna Azabal), an attractive young woman who works there, both of whom are harbouring secrets of their own. After confessing to Ben Ghabrit, Younes is disowned by the police and subsequently becomes more and more involved in the resistance movement, placing himself in ever greater danger as the Nazis begin to clamp down on both Jews and anyone suspected of protecting them.
Rahim delivers a compelling performance as Younes, subtly conveying the gradual shifts in his character's worldview; it's also fascinating to see his character warm up under the influence of friendship and his scenes with both Shalaby and Azabal are extremely well handled. Shalably is equally good and there's strong support from the always-excellent Michael Lonsdale, while Farid Larbi is effective as Younes' politicised cousin Ali.
Ferroukhi orchestrates a number of exciting sequences and the script is notable for presenting a fresh perspective on scenes that are familiar staples from resistance dramas.
The main problem with the film is that the script continually raises potentially interesting plot directions (Younes rescuing a pair of orphaned Jewish children, the nature of Salim's secret, the relationship with Leila), only to seemingly ignore those ideas, with the result that the film wastes several opportunities for emotional impact.
Free Men is an engaging wartime drama with a superb central performance from Tahar Rahim, but the patchy script means that it doesn't quite deliver the emotional punch it's capable of.
Free Men (Les Hommes Libres) (15)