There are many types of men, some are strong and brave, some less so. Some are X-Men and an even smaller number are free men. Despite having no super powers or funny outfits, free men, in their own way, save the world too.
One of these free men is Younes (played by Tahar Rahim of the excellent Un Prophète), a young Algerian Arab who finds himself in Paris during the Second World War. Having lost his job at the factory, he makes money selling black market goods to his fellow North Africans. He is trying to save money to retire to Algeria and doesn’t want to ruin it all by get mixed up in politics or by fighting the Nazis. However, as is the way with these things, Younes finds himself taking sides and he ends up saving the lives of Jews.
Free Men (Les Hommes Libres) shares some similarities with In Darkness, as both films are about men who move from indifference to engagement. Both men start the war as self-interested criminals and perhaps both films make the point that it was those who already lived outside the law who found it easiest to ignore the Nazis race regulations. As with In Darkness, Free Men traces subtle changes of heart and an awakening of conscience.
Initially, Younes is asked to spy on the Paris Great Mosque for the Vichy French, where it is suspected that Jews and other undesirables are being secreted away. All the while his sympathies are being pulled in different directions by his trades unionist uncle who is working for the resistance and a growing sympathy for the people at the mosque. This early part of the film is extremely tense as Younes juggles these competing interests and tries to survive the impossible position of being forced to be a collaborator. Friendships and treachery develop together, within an overpowering mood of paranoia and self-disgust.
One of these growing friendship is with a Moroccan singer, who turns out to be Jewish, which strengthens Younes’ commitment to the resistance. The singer, Salim Halali is played by Palestinian actor and hip-hop artist Mahmud Shalaby, who sings Arabic songs with a lovely plaintive voice. His songs can be funny too; after the news reports that American troops have landed in Morocco to attack the Nazi forces there, he sings about the GIs chewing gum and saying things like “okay, okay, come on, bye, bye”. The mosque, and its leader Si Kaddour Benghabrit (played by French acting stalwart Michael Lonsdale), is the other force that starts to make its influence felt on Younes. With its perpetually tinkling fountain and balmy garden, the mosque provides a tranquil refuge for both Younes and the audience, and a moral bulwark on which to rely.
Younes is a fictional amalgam of a number of North Africans who helped Jews, but both the singer and the Imam are based on real men. Benghabrit is believed to have saved a number of Jewish people through issuing them with Muslim identity papers, one of whom was the famous Salim Halili. There is some disagreement about the exact number he saved, some saying as high as 1,732 while the more cautious say he only saved 100.
Despite the uncertainty over exact number of Jews (and indeed Christian and Muslim members of the resistance) saved by Benghabrit and the staff at the Paris Grand Mosque, the film works well as a World War II thriller. The director Ismaël Ferroukhi expertly builds the tension, but doesn’t forget to create characters who are believable and likeable. Tahar Rahim is especially good as Younes, his impassive expression apparently masking inner turmoil.
Free Men also draws valuable attention to the integration between Sephardic Jews and North African communities. It also reminds us about the famous parable that says saving the life of one person is the equivalent to saving the world, wisdom that is found both in the Talmud and in the Koran.