Inspired by true stories, Ismael Ferroukhi’s Free Men is a calm, measured period thriller which traces the gradual development – from apolitical grifter to freedom fighter – of a young Algerian immigrant in WW2-era Nazi-occupied Paris.
Set in 1942, Free Men opens with Younes (Tahar Rahim), ambulating around the local community, earning his keep as a vaguely shifty black marketeer. He is soon collared by the authorities and pressured into taking on the role of a double agent with the express brief to root out Jews hiding within the community, specifically inside a Paris mosque presided over by the wizened, wily rector Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale). Younes’ conscience is tested when he meets and befriends the strikingly green-eyed, charismatic Jewish singer Salim (Mahmud Shalaby), who has hitherto successfully been passing as Muslim. The high-stakes drama takes off from this point, and grips throughout, drawing in a host of supporting characters who play pivotal, compelling roles.
Though he already announced himself as the real deal (on debut) in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Rahim gives an exceptional performance here, centring the film with aplomb. He echoes a young, perhaps Mean Streets -era Robert de Niro, not just facially (the narrowing eyes and the flashing grin) but with his range of subtle physical gestures and nervy energy. With his gradual development toward a political consciousness, Rahim’s character seems a distant cousin of A Prophet‘s Malik, who also subtly went about sculpting a new identity under onerous circumstances. Meanwhile, the crucial role of Ben Ghabrit is played with gravitas by an only slightly oddly-cast Lonsdale, a French veteran probably best known to British viewers for his role as Drax in Bond-in-space fiasco Moonraker.
Though scenes of violence and conflict are largely kept to a minimum, there is a horribly realistic gunfight filmed in parched sunlight, and a constant sense of pulsing tension that bubbles just beneath the surface. Ferroukhi trusts that the situation is dramatic enough, and he’s right to do so. His muted palette and restrained deployment of camera movement complements the excellent pacing, which keep the film flowing at good pace.
Free Men is exactly the type of film that could be hastily written off as bland or colourless because it refrains from indulging in bombastic spectacle or wild character arcs. Yet its all the more effective and believable for its restraint. What emerges is a moving tribute to the men and women who gave their lives in the resistance, which recognizes the quotidian, insidious horror of persecution, and never goes near triumphalism. It’s a moving exploration of morality, identity and activism located within a rarely explored political context, and is highly recommended, all the way through to its teasingly ambiguous final shot.
Free Men is in cinemas now.