Friday, January 1, 2016

Outside the Law (2010)

Director: Rachid Bouchareb                           Writer: Rachid Bouchareb
Film Score: Armand Amar                              Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne
Starring: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila and Bernard Blancan

For my annual January 1st screening of a French film I’ve chosen Outside the Law (Hors la loi) or literally translated, “Outlaws.” Though not a sequel in terms of story, this is the follow up to the artistically successful Indigènes (The Indigenous) from 2006--stupidly translated as Days of Glory--about racism against Algerian soldiers fighting with the French during World War Two. Both films star one of my favorite French actors, Jamel Debbouze, as well as Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila. This is a powerful film and, while there is a temptation to associate it with films like The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America, but unlike those film which celebrate the illegal activities of their protagonists, Outside the Law is an historical film that emphasizes the sacrifice that the characters make, namely their lives, so that their country might finally gain its independence. As such, the final scenes are not celebratory as much as they are sobering in their depiction of the lengths to which the Algerians would go to gain their freedom from France. In so many ways the colonization of Algeria was a throwback to a pre-World War One ideal of imperialism that had already gone by the historical wayside. And this idea is not only demonstrated in the Algerian fight, but in the French loss of Vietnam-a conflict in which the U.S. incomprehensibly took over.

The film begins in Algeria in 1925, with Ahmed Benaissa being told to vacate his land because a French colonial has purchased it. Benaissa’s family has lived on the land for generations but, without a deed to the land, he is forced to leave. His three young sons witness the eviction and see the misery it has caused, and the oldest even has to leave school because his father can’t afford it now. Before they leave, though, he tells them that this is still their land. Next, the credits roll over French documentary footage of the end of World War Two and the German surrender, then shifts to Algeria the same day as the film resumes. Now that the Algerians have fought the Nazis, they want their freedom from France. The youngest of the three brothers, Jamel Debbouze, isn’t interested and simply wants to get back to his job of training young boxers. But French police have moved in and begin shooting the unarmed protesters in the street. One of the fallen is a young boy who dies in front of Roschdy Zem, Debbouze’s older brother. Once the Algerians begin shooting back, the French Army is called in with their machine guns and start slaughtering the protesters. By the time Debbouze makes his way home, his brother is taken prisoner and his father and sisters are all dead. Eight years later his oldest brother, Sami Bouajila, is in Vietman fighting for the French, Zem is still in prison, and Debbouze is left to take care of their mother.

One day a year later, in Algeria, Debbouze sees a young man shoot two French colonists in a street café and barely reacts. Immediately after, in a scene right out of The Godfather II, he goes to see the policeman who evicted his family from their land and sticks a knife in his belly, killing him where he sits to avenge his father’s death and humiliation. He then takes his mother with him to France where Zem has been in prison for ten years. Meanwhile Bouajila is in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, but by 1956 he returns to France to find his mother and brother living in a shanty-town, Debbouze making money as a pimp, and Zem released from prison. While Debbouze wants to continue his criminal activities, as well as own a gym to train boxers, Bouajila and Zem team up to support the military resistance in Algeria by starting a resistance movement in France. It’s slow going at first, but after a few murders they begin winning Algerians to their side. Zem quickly becomes the leader of the movement in Paris, with Bouajila as his strongman. At the same time, however, the national police, led by Bernard Blancan, are trying to stop them, and end the terrorist attacks. The film continues on with the brothers’ illegal activities that eventually end in 1961, less than a year before the French government would grant Algeria their independence.

Writer-director Rachid Bouchareb is once again at the helm of the picture, as he was in Indigènes. His style is not flamboyant, and for good reason. There’s a lot of historical meaning behind these two films and he takes that responsibility seriously. While Jamel Debbouze was the driving force in the previous film, and even co-produced, it was Bouchareb who took the lead here, having done the research on the first one and feeling that there needed to be a conclusion that resulted in Algerian independence. Debbouze is solid, as usual, but it is Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila who dominate the screen in this production, all of them of Algerian descent. Zem is terrific as the dissident whose mother shames him into becoming the leader of the independence movement, while Bouajila is the war veteran who gives his mother the grandson she always wanted, but is afraid he’s lost his soul in the process. All of the period sets and costumes are extremely well done and, while somewhat claustrophobic in its inability to open up post-war Paris, is still incredibly impressive. What’s fascinating about the film is that the protagonists know that what they are doing is illegal, but compare themselves to the French resistance during the war to justify their actions. But the film doesn’t play on their oppression in a way that makes them the heroes. They fight because they are compelled to free their country, but it comes nowhere near to a Hollywood underdog story. In the end, Outside the Law (Hors la loi) is a tremendous piece of filmmaking, an important story told extremely well.

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