A satisfying wartime espionage drama focused on little-noted intersections between Arabic emigres and the French Resistance, “Free Men” stars “A Prophet’s” Tahar Rahim as a black marketeer caught up amid dangerous intrigue in German-occupied Paris. Loosely inspired by actual events, this well-crafted sophomore feature from director-coscenarist Ismael Ferroukhi (working on a more ambitious scale than in his 2004 debut “Le grand voyage”) should garner strong enough reviews and audience response further along the fest circuit to attract some offshore rollouts following its Sept. 28 Gallic launch.
One of a wave of North African workers who arrived on their colonial keeper’s shores before global conflict closed France’s immigration-friendly borders, Younges (Rahim) has long since lost his factory job. Now, in 1942, he subsists selling illegal goods hand-to-hand, hoping to raise enough funds to return to his native Algeria. Engaged in less cash-focused but equally furtive work is cousin Ali (Farid Larbi), a union agitator who gives the authorities even more reason to hunt him down as a Resistance leader, his hope (a grimly ironic one, given subsequent events) being that efforts to liberate France might encourage that nation to free its own remaining colonies.
When gendarmes come banging on Younges’ door, Ali beats a hair’s-breadth retreat, but Younges is caught red-handed in his own illicit trade. With prison his only alternative, he agrees to “keep an eye” on a local mosque suspected of hiding Jews and passing them off as Muslims in order to hustle them out of harm’s way. Cordialities between visiting rector Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale) and the Gestapo major (Christopher Bucholz) stationed here thinly veils a cat-and-mouse game that might turn lethal at any moment.
Younges’ clumsy spying attempts do not escape wily Ghabrit’s attention, and the young man becomes a useful go-between working both sides until one misstep abruptly terminates his role as Axis mole. (Strangely, he isn’t arrested as punishment.) Hitherto cynically apolitical, he grows more committed to Ali’s cause, drawn further by feelings for Leila (Lubna Azabal), a seemingly nondescript mosque worker who is in fact deeply involved in the Algerian liberation struggles. Meanwhile, Younges is periodically drawn into the far more selfishly ambitious orbit of Salim (Mahmud Shalaby), a velvet-eyed hedonist who’s gaining steam as a potentially great singer in a traditional Algerian style (the character’s impressive vocals are dubbed by Moroccan vocalist Pinhas Cohen).
Script by Ferroukhi and Alain-Michel Blanc (“The Concert”) deftly weaves these strands into an effective if not quite pulse-pounding suspenser, its fairly low-key tenor proving helpful when some climactic business involving the last-minute rescue of a child risks corny contrivance.
Confidently handled pic is well-cast down the line, with Rahim easily holding center as a watchful protag of few words. Ever-reliable veteran Lonsdale and Arab-Israel newcomer Shalaby are supporting standouts. Locations (which briefly stretch to Morocco) limn an unfamiliar Paris of serene religious compounds and yesteryear’s ethnic slums. Assembly is intelligently handled on all levels.