Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Band of Brothers: Outside the Law

Two brothers are Algerian revolutionaries. The third is gangster. You might have trouble telling which is which—and not because of any family resemblance. While explosively controversial in France, Rachid Bouchareb’s portrayal of the post-War Algerian separatists ironically might be construed as politically incorrect on these shores. Regardless of whether you consider it a political drama or a crime film, Bouchareb’s Outside the Law (trailer here), Algeria’s official submission for best foreign language Academy Award consideration, is an entertaining film worth checking out when it opens in New York this Friday.

Law opens with its two most incendiary scenes. First, we watch as the brothers’ salt-of-the-earth father is dispossessed of his ancestral land. Then we witness the Sétif massacre of independence protestors by the French-Algerian police. Having thus firmly established his anti-colonial street cred, Bouchareb then commences to tell a story.

The years following Sétif have separated the brothers. Saïd has done his best to look after their mother, but Algeria is a tinderbox primed to explode. Facing limited opportunities, they immigrate to France, hoping the other two brothers will soon join them. Messaoud has been serving in Indochina with the French Army. Abdelkader has been serving time in prison for his revolutionary activity. With his scholarly look and ideological fervor, he definitely projects a Robespierre-like vibe.

Eventually, the prodigal brothers make their way to France, but it is a tense reunion. No longer on speaking terms with their mother, Saïd has worked his way up from pimp to Pigalle nightclub impresario. While nobody in the family considers this an appropriate activity for a proper Muslim, somehow they are all still willing to take his money.

The irony of Law is that of the three brothers, Saïd acts the least like a gangster. By contrast, Abdelkader ruthlessly employs strong-arm tactics to impose discipline within the FLN and to cow the Algerian expatriate community into compliance. Of course, he is not the only one willing to break a few eggs. A veteran of the French resistance, Col. Faivre has a free hand to do whatever it takes to crush the FLN, which he has no reluctance to exercise. Frankly, Law is one of those films that works surprisingly well, because the filmmaker somewhat loses control on the political implications through their greater commitment to telling a good story.

In truth, Law is a sweeping sibling saga that sets up an archetypal conflict between the brothers, playing Saïd’s materialism against Abdelkader’s zealotry, with Messaoud, the self-denying family man, caught in the middle. Though he is made-up to practically resemble Lon Chaney, Roschdy Zem is a riveting figure of pathos in Law. One of the best French-speaking actors working today, Zem is compulsively watchable in every scene. Likewise, Jamel Debouze captures the flair and swagger of a slick operator, while maintaining the appropriately flinty edge of a recent immigrant of uncertain position. Unfortunately, Sami Bouajila is the weak leg of the triad, always coming across more as a symbol than a flesh-and-blood character.

Though Law wears its anti-Colonialism on its sleeve, it hums along quite briskly as an epic historical seasoned with strong thriller-gangster elements (and really, after the last eight years, does anyone on either side of the aisle care to carry water for the French?). Indeed, it holds its own with the Mesrine duology and the Carlos roadshow, even though it is a relatively short 138 minutes by comparison. Even those well-attuned to ideology in films are still likely to be caught up Law’s unvarnished, action-driven depiction of the violent brothers. Definitely recommended, Law opens this Friday (11/5) in New York at the Paris Theatre, Manhattan’s single-screen landmark.