This wartime French-language drama freely mixes actual people and events with a fictional narrative, about Younes, a young Algerian man scratching a living in Nazi-occupied Paris. Free Men follows a conventional narrative, exploring Younes' rite of passage from naÔve, self-interested youth towards a manhood honed by the relentless impact of the Gestapo jackboot on the people around him.
Initially he looks out only for himself and his immediate family, not hesitating to trade on the black market and take advantage of any deal, at the expense of anyone else including penniless compatriots. When first pressed by the Vichy police to spy at the local mosque his reticence isn't on moral grounds - his discomfort stems from his lack of experience and fear of being caught. At the start of the film, Younes would apparently sell anyone to save his own skin. By the end of it he is ... different. He finds a cause to defend, sometimes running the ultimate risk and taking the ultimate action.
Interwoven with the main plot are many other intriguing threads and characters; Vichy collaborators, Nazi officers, Muslims, Jews, Christians, spivs, resistance fighters, communists, spies, snitches, fugitives, traitors, criminals, children and innocents - with the theme of discovered brotherhood at the film's core. We're left to wonder if the Imam and rector are helping Jews to escape (by providing them with false identities as Muslims) simply because it is the right thing to do... or if they have one eye on a postwar future in which Algeria would want to claim its independence from France.
That's part of what makes Free Men so satisfying. It's beautifully filmed, evoking a more normal depiction of wartime Paris than the stereotype we see so often; it's obviously an occupied city with arrests and martial law, but it's also one where people go about their lives, adapting to the strange circumstances of the time. The colours are human - not a wash of grey misery - the events are commonplace, and affirm that even when the most appalling horrors of history are going on, people still have birthdays, still go to the mosque, still dance, still wash clothes... still form connections.
So Free Men works on many levels. It's both an intelligent, fulfilling story in its own right and a window onto an unfamiliar political situation which is extremely relevant today, in the aftermath of the Arab spring.
And the music! The soundtrack is integral to the film's themes and takes centrestage on a couple of occasions, but it never overwhelms the conventional action. It perfectly highlights Younes' early isolation... and then gradually he's drawn into a foot-tapping, head-nodding rhythm along with his compatriots. The beauty of the Arabic vocals are wonderfully underplayed; at times the translated lyric is stunningly banal, but the sound almost angelic.
Free Men is, then, an unusually accessible arthouse / foreign language film, with themes we can easily relate to - but with plenty of meat in each scene to muse on for days to come. At its heart it is an optimistic, uplifting film which chooses to concentrate on the aspects of goodness emerge even at times of the greatest evil.
Not a typical war movie, it reminds us that an act of heroism can be something as simple as walking the streets of Paris during daylight to take two small children to safety.
For an alternative, altogether more grey, grim and gritty war story with similar themes, try In Darkness [DVD