Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Free Men: the Paris Mosque Breaks Ranks

As with all faiths, there were both demons and angels among Muslims during World War II. King Mohammad V is widely hailed for sheltering Moroccan Jewry in open defiance of Vichy. In contrast, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem broadcasted vehement anti-Semitic propaganda on behalf of the Germans and recruited volunteers for a special Muslim division of the SS. Indeed, there was a reason the National Socialists were surprised when the Mosque of Paris broke ranks to protect North African Jewish immigrants. Director Ismaƫl Ferrouki (and co-writer Alain Michel-Blanc) dramatize and somewhat fictionalize that relatively rare story of interfaith solidarity in Free Men (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Nazi occupation of France is well underway, but all it means to the Algerian Younes Bendaoud is a chance to make some money on the black market. That quickly changes once he is pinched. Being conveniently Muslim, a Vichy-connected inspector recruits him as a snitch. He is to attend Mosque regularly and report on suspicious visitors. Of course, the Mosque rector Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit’s most frequent guest is Major von Ratibor of the occupying German forces (played by Horst Buchholz’s son, Christopher). However, the inspector is more interested in Salim Halali, an Arabic singer whose true heritage has become the subject of rumors.

As a spy, Bendaoud is pretty incompetent, immediately drawing Ben Ghabrit’s attention. Yet, as they allow him to observe the Mosque’s underground activities, he becomes increasingly committed to the resistance.

If one were to judge solely on the basis of the many well meaning Holocaust dramas produced over the last ten years, one would conclude nearly everyone throughout Europe and North Africa was secretly harboring Jewish countrymen from the National Socialist-Vichy authorities. Unfortunately, the Paris Mosque was rather exceptional in every respect.

Free Men definitely engages in similar revisionism, while justly celebrating those who did risk life and liberty for the sake of their fellow man. Respectfully conservative in its approach, it follows the traditional arc of rescuer pictures: the awakening of conscious, the building of trust, a late war crisis, and the culminating post-VE Day resolution.

While the film takes few narrative risks, it looks and sounds quite refined. Though set entirely in France, Ferrouki embraces the color palate of North Africa, where Free Men was partly filmed. Inspired by the life of Halali, who would become a leading impresario and popularizer of Arabic music, only to disappear into obscurity in his senior years, Free Men has an appropriately rich, percussion heavy Arab-Andalusian soundtrack. In addition, Bendaoud’s brooding interludes are underscored by the distinctive themes improvised in the tradition of Tomasz Stanko’s film and theater work by Beirut-born French-based jazz trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf.

As Bendaoud, Tahar Rahim is undeniably a paragon of tough masculinity. However, most of the supporting players come across as rather coldly calculated. As a result, the film lacks the emotional punch one might expect. Still, it is a classy period production, featuring some passionate music. Often intriguing, but never genuinely surprising, is recommended for those who enjoy the underground milieu best typified by Melville’s Army of Shadows.  Free Men opens this Friday (3/16) in New York, uptown at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and downtown at the Quad Cinema.