Free Men is a french language dramatisation of the trials faced by the Moroccan and Algerian immigrants in Paris during World War Two. They had arrived in France before the German occupation to find work but many were now without any hope and the occupiers’ relentless search for Jews in their midst had created a unique set of circumstances. And inspired a very watchable account of a lesser explored aspect of WWII.
Our hero, Younes (Tahar Rahim), is initially extremely reluctant to get involved in the twin struggles for freedom from the fascist occupation of France and freedom from France’s hold over its North African colonies. His blackmarket dealings brings him to the attention of the occupiers and Younes is asked to spy on goings-on at the Paris Mosque in return for his freedom. The Germans suspected that the Mosque rector was hiding and providing Muslim identification papers for Jews but they had no proof.
Younes halfheartedly offers them some information until he realises where his loyalties lie, mostly with his cousin Ali (Farid Larbi), Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale), the rector of the Great Mosque and an Algerian Jewish singer, Salim Halali (Mahmud Shalabi). His cousin has never doubted where his own loyalties lay and his involvement in the resistance leads Younes deep into the fight for freedom.
The characters of Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit and Salim (formerly Simon) Halali were based on real-life persons living in Paris at the time; the story goes that the rector saved Salim Halali because he was a music fan and there is still much debate over how many Jews were actually helped by the Mosque, further inflamed by the release of this film. The DVD special features include an interview with Director and co-writer Ismaël Ferroukhi, in which he speaks of his inspiration and personal connection to the events of that time, which is very much worth a watch.
However much truth is involved in this latest WWII tale of solidarity and resistance between Muslims and Jews, there is a dynamic pace to the film, the cinematography is pleasant, the performances by the main players are engaging [despite some strange occasional blankness (intended or not) from Tahar Rahim] and it leaves you with a need to know more about what happened at the Great Mosque of Paris.
Maryann has awarded Free Men three Torches of Truth.