Actor Tahar Rahim tore a gash in the screen with his performance as an Arab-French career criminal in Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, and now the 28-year-old native of Belfort, France is back with another hot-button cross-cultural portrait, Free Men.
French director Ismaël Ferroukhi, who wrote the screenplay with Alain-Michel Blanc, was evidently inspired by a magazine article about the Islamic congregation of the Grand Mosque of Paris hiding Jews and Resistance fighters from the occupying Nazi Germans during WWII. The true story focuses on multiple levels of rapprochement — Muslims toward Jews and Christians, North African immigrants to native French, and Arab leftists working alongside French freedom fighters, with the common aim of stopping fascism.
Rahim stars as Younes, an unemployed Algerian immigrant barely making it as a black marketeer. After Younes crosses the line and takes the easy cash by collaborating with the German-backed police who want him to spy on the mosque and its worshipers, something happens to him. From his union member cousin Ali (Farid Larbi), Younes learns that he can choose to combat both colonialism and Nazism by becoming a double agent. Things slowly dawn on the impressionable Younes and he grows from an opportunist to a committed Resistance man. Along the way, he interacts with a charismatic Arabic singer named Salim Halili (Arab-Israeli actor Mahmoud Shalaby), who has secrets in his life; the mosque's director, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (veteran French player Michael Lonsdale); and a young woman named Leila (Belgian actress Lubna Azabal from Incendies).
Free Men is one of those espionage/war movies — in common with Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows — in which the usual thrilling chases and shootouts take a back seat to the transformations that occur in the protagonists' minds. Younes, Salim, and Ben Ghabrit all change their attitudes as events close in around them, and they all make the right choice. The traditional North African music is a major plus as well. See this one soon. It won't stay in theaters long.