- In prison, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) waits for history to be unleashed.
Rachid Bouchareb's ambitious docudrama Outside the Law puts viewers deep within the mid-century struggle during which colonial Algeria sought independence from France. The story begins in 1920s Algeria, as the Souni family loses its farm to colonial interests. A 1945 crackdown on the independence movement further scatters the family: Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) joins the French army, while his brother Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is arrested. The mother and remaining brother, Said (Jamel Debbouze), move to a shantytown of other Algerian immigrants on the outskirts of Paris.
After this preamble, Outside documents the Sounis getting caught up in increasingly fraught events of the 1950s. Abdelkader is radicalized in prison, and upon his release, joins the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Paris, recruiting immigrant workers and his vet brother Messaoud. Meanwhile, Said seeks a more personal independence, becoming a boxing promoter.
Bouchareb, who also wrote the screenplay, uses the Sounis as a prism to view these tumultuous times, which include: the escalation to armed rebellion; competing independence organizations; the creation of a secret anti-terrorism unit within the French police; historical callbacks to the French resistance and the French Indochina war; and the participation of European groups sympathetic to the cause. Through it all, the brothers, who have varying degrees of commitment, spar -- and try to eke out a domestic life despite the all-consuming cause.
Given the intensity of the milieu, some of Outside is a bit plodding: The brothers pick a target; carry out an action; retreat and so on. (There is also a tedious climatic shoot-out which is fortunately salvaged by a far superior last-reel confrontation.) This intersection of criminality, political rebellion and the immigrant experience may simply be too much for one film, even at two-and-a-half hours. Despite real tragedies, the film frequently feels more expository than emotional. The three lead actors are good -- each has moments that let us see what the turn of history is costing them -- but then Bouchareb moves on to another dispassionate assassination. It's clear the cause has cost them their humanity and brotherhood, but it seems more academic here than fully realized.
Outside the Law was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and sparked controversy upon its release in France; critics cited historical errors, and some undoubtedly saw the film as anti-France and pro-terrorism. Yet, both the protagonists and their French adversaries in this film operate "outside the law," and with casual violence. If the work is firmly pro-Algerian, it does aim, perhaps imperfectly, to be a portrait of that struggle's personal cost, even to a family that had every reason to fight.
Directed by Rachid Bouchareb
Starring Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila
In French and Arabic, with subtitles
Starts Fri., March 4. Regent Square