With “Outside the Law,” Rachid Bouchareb ditches whatever subtlety he possessed and puts his talent for classical helming in service of all-out propaganda. Constructed as an ur-text of the Algerian struggle for independence against the French during the mid-20th century, pic doesn’t look for truth with dramatic concessions, but rather an alternative vision to counter years of colonialist exploitation. Though helmer’s recycling of well-worn emotional devices will galvanize North African communities seeking such a black-and-white approach, auds outside France and the Maghreb won’t coddle to this transparently manipulative vision.
French media has been full of stories leading up to the film’s Cannes preem, thanks to threatened disruptions by far-right party the National Front, who are protesting an expected anti-French bias. Only those on the radical fringe would argue that France (or any former imperialist power) has much to be proud of from her colonial days, though Bouchareb’s tit-for-tat propaganda pic is practically designed to generate destructive rancor from extremists on both sides. Significant Euro coin investment (not to mention a Cannes competish slot) speaks of a desire to expiate Western guilt, though such emotions would have been better directed toward a less polemical approach.
A prologue, shot with the gravitas and clear-cut elements of an icon, shows an Algerian peasant family in 1925 evicted from their ancestral land by French colonizers. Then the action jumps forward 20 years, picking up where Bouchareb’s “Days of Glory” ended, with the declaration of Allied victory in WWII. On the same day, people take to the streets of Setif, in Algeria, to demand equal rights and independence. Said (Jamel Debbouze) is busy promoting a boxing match when colonists and soldiers massacre the demonstrators, killing his father (Ahmed Benaissa) and arresting his brother, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), for sedition.
Eight years later the third brother, Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is fighting for the French in Indochina, where he’s wounded and then inspired by the Vietnamese victory (i.e., a colony defeating the colonial oppressor). While Said disgraces his mother (Chafia Boudraa) by working as a pimp and nightclub proprietor, Abdelkader and Messaoud radicalize the neighborhood, strong-arming their fellow Algerians into supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN) on pain of death.
A gunfight in a police station is straight out of “The Untouchables,” with Messaoud blazing away with a pistol in each hand in one of many well-staged but unconvincing scenes. When their nemesis Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan) forms “The Red Hand,” a covert squad allowing agents to act as vigilantes against Algerians, the violence escalates and the siblings do what it takes for the cause.
Pic’s few femme characters are marginalized, while the brothers are pure stereotypes: Abdelkader is the ascetic revolutionary sporting eyeglasses to signal his intellectual bent; Messaoud is the nice guy who vomits after killing (but kills nevertheless); and Said is just out for status and a buck. The actors play it like a 1940s patriotic epic, in line with the film’s ends-justify-the-means rallying cry.
A lot of money (reportedly nearly $25 million) went into the production, and it’s certainly a handsome-looking film. Christophe Beaucarne’s lensing is classically perfect, using the coldest grays and blues for France in contrast to warmer tones in Algeria and even Vietnam. Archival black-and-white images with colored elements are inserted to reinforce factual tie-ins, and Armand Amar’s sweeping score milks every emotional moment.