A stiff, unconvincing epic, Outside the Law opens on May 8, 1945, the day Allied forces declared victory in World War II and, in Setif, Algeria, the French army opened fire on peaceful demonstrators marching for equal rights and freedom from French rule.
Felled in the slaughter is the father of three Algerian brothers, one of whom, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), is arrested and hauled off to prison. Eight years later, he reunites in a Paris shanty town with his brothers, the fast-talking hustler Said (Jamel Debbouze) and the army veteran Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), who was wounded while fighting for France in Indochina. Driven by the human-rights violations he witnessed while incarcerated, Abdelkader enlists his brothers to help him recruit new members for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FNL), one of several independence movements at work in the region.The FLN compelled its members to revolt with violence, something that did not sit well with the other political sects among Algerians, who believed in pacifist rebellion via voting and protests. The difference of opinion leads to the movie’s best scene, a direct homage to The Godfather and Army of Shadows, in which the brothers murder one of their compatriots in order to advance the FLN cause. The killing is one of several the protagonists will commit in freedom’s name. Outside the Law, which was made for $25 million (a huge budget by European standards) and was among the five Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees this year, was written and directed by Rachid ( Days of Glory) Bouchareb, a French filmmaker of Algerian descent who wants to put a human face on his country’s decades-long battle for independence. But despite the film’s focus on the relationship among the brothers at the exclusion of a larger historical perspective, it still plays as a piece of didactic agitprop. The protagonists rarely talk about anything other than the revolution, which makes it difficult for the actors to provide any depth or insight into their thinly written characters (this is the sort of movie in which, as a demonstration of how cold-blooded murder affects a man, shows us someone throwing up after carrying out an execution).Some of Outside the Law’s subplots are far more interesting than the familial drama at its forefront. For example, the tactics by the Paris police to create a secret force known as the Red Hand, which trafficked in terrorist tactics aimed at undermining the Algerian movements, are fascinating and cry out for a movie of their own. But they are not the main focus of this melodramatic, sometimes trite film, which is as heavy handed as the creaky prologue showing an Algerian farmer being kicked off his land. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Outside the Law was picketed by French demonstrators who claimed the movie distorted history. Instead, they should have complained about its manipulative, preachy ways.
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan, Chafia Boudraa.
Writer-director: Rachid Bouchareb.
Producer: Jean Brehat.
A Cohen Media Group release. Running time: 138 minutes. In French and Arabic with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Tower Cinema.