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Review: Free Men

Solidarity and mistrust in war-time Paris
By PETER KEOUGH  |  March 22, 2012
2.5 2.5 Stars

In a little known footnote to the Holocaust, the head of the Paris mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, helped many Jews escape the Nazis. As portrayed by Michael Lonsdale, he's saintly and shrewd, a kind of Muslim Dumbledore. Unfortunately director Ismaël Ferroukhi doesn't make him his hero, but rather Younes (Tahar Rahim), a vague composite of real-life North African immigrants who worked for the French Resistance.

On the other hand, Ferroukhi evokes the unusual setting of his film, the Arab community in war-time Paris, with specificity and brooding atmosphere. It's a tense world of both solidarity and mistrust, where people hang out at murky cafés and restaurants, at exotic nightclubs with rousing musicians, and in the paradisal-seeming grounds of the mosque. There Ghabrit must host an arrogant German Colonel (Christopher Buchholz) while harboring fugitives in the basement. The scenes crackle with a tense combination of underground intrigue and the existential angst of a Paul Bowles.

The mosque is where Younes is set up as a snitch by the French police, who offer him the assignment as an alternative to jail after picking him up in possession of contraband. At first he doesn't show any scruples at doing this; in fact, earlier he is seen callously shaking down one of his countrymen, trading him some cigarettes for an invaluable drum. But then he quickly and inexplicably evolves into a cool operator who will risk his life to rescue endangered Jewish children, or engage in a shootout to rescue a partisan leader from the Gestapo.

Maybe he's motivated by a possibly homoerotic bond with Salim (Mahmoud Shalabi), a Jewish Moroccan singer whose fake papers were provided by Ghabrit. Rahim, as he does in the brilliant The Prophet, puts in a cryptic performance open to many interpretations. The film, too, works best when it is most ambiguous, as an evocation of a world of confused loyalties and amorphous dread.

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