In Rachid Bouchareb's sprawling historical melodrama Outside the Law, the political underground meets the Parisian underworld.
And while the 138-minute film takes way too long to hit that morally intriguing intersection, its relentless forward momentum - propelled by revenge and splattered with tense action sequences -holds your attention through one family's experience of the Algerian struggle for independence from colonial France.
A French director of Algerian descent, Bouchareb casts three key actors (Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila) from his acclaimed 2006 film Days of Glory (about North African soldiers serving France in World War II) which, like Outside the Law and his 1995 film Dust for Life, was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar.
In his new film, the trio play brothers from a poor family who follow very different trajectories after being evicted from their ancestral home in the film's prologue, set in 1925. This act defines one constant in the film: The French are the bad guys, often hiding behind or working with co-operative Algerians.
It happens again in the next scene, a provocative depiction of the 1945 Setif massacre, during which French soldiers shot and rounded up people in an Algerian market town. Bouchareb provides no background or context. Soldiers and local collaborators suddenly appear with firearms and conduct an ambush-like slaughter. (The scene was the subject of controversy when the film opened in France, but you can imagine that's what the event felt like for many local witnesses.) The brothers' elderly father and sisters are killed; their motive is stoked.
We then leap to the early 1950s and a shantytown outside Paris where the youngest brother Said (Debbouze), an aspiring boxing promoter, and his mother (Chafia Boudraa) settle in to be closer to Abdelkader (Bouajila), the scholar of the family, serving time in a Parisian jail for his political views. Messaoud (Zem), a career soldier in the French army, is deployed to Indochina and, later, taken prisoner by Vietnamese guerrillas fighting the colonial power.
Well into the film the brothers are finally united. Although their new, complicated adult relationship seems to be the heart of the saga, the film nevertheless continues its sketchy, connect-the-dots style and we never really feel the humanity of the personal or the political story.
War vet Messaoud commits himself to Abdelkader's cause, which is to build support for the F.L.N. (National Liberation Front), a socialist party dedicated to securing independence for Algeria from France. His commitment requires him to do some nasty things, while the organization stages terrorist acts around the city.
The righteous Abdelkader becomes a key figure in the F.L.N. but is eventually blind-sided by pride and power. And the comparatively apolitical Said, reluctantly funding his brothers' cause through his successful cabaret, wants so badly to see his prize Algerian boxer topple a French champion he can't see the potential political repercussions of the big fight.
Outside the Law is a great-looking, fast-paced film and, to his credit, Bouchareb doesn't bathe the F.L.N. in a completely flattering light. But narrowing the focus to one central conflicted character and tightening the time frame might have given the audience something more to ponder than the action of a historical revenge thriller.
Outside the Law
Directed by Rachid Bouchareb
Screenplay by Rachid Bouchareb and Olivier Lorelle
Starring Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan and Chafia Boudraa
(In Arabic and French with English subtitles)
Outside the Law opens in Toronto and Montreal on Friday.
Special to The Globe and Mail