Friday, August 26, 2011

DVD Review: Outside the Law

Outside the Law ***
Directed by: Rachid Bouchareb.
Written by: Rachid Bouchareb.
Starring: Jamel Debbouze (Saïd), Roschdy Zem (Messaoud), Sami Bouajila (Abdelkader), Chafia Boudraa (La mere), Bernard Blancan (Colonel Faivre), Sabrina Seyvecou (Hélène), Assaad Bouab (Ali), Thibault de Montalembert (Morvan), Samir Guesmi (Otmani), Jean-Pierre Lorit (Picot).

Rachid Bouchareb’s 2006 film, Days of Glory, looked at what happened to Algerians who fought for the French during WWII. Despite sacrificing as much as anyone else, they had to wait decades (well after many were dead) to get full pensions for their service. Now, he’s back with Outside the Law, that takes a look at what happened to Algerians after the war - right up until the their fight for independence in the 1960s. The film focuses on three brothers, and it’s quite clear that Bouchareb has in many ways modeled his film off of The Godfather - or at least was inspired by it.

In the years after WWII, three brothers take different paths. Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) becomes a protestor who wants freedom for Algeria. At a peaceful protest, that turns violent only when the French military shows up, he gets arrested and thrown into a French jail for a decade for his beliefs. Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) joins the French army, and spends years fighting in Vietnam, comes back scarred by his experience both emotionally and physically. With one brother in jail, and the other in the army, the youngest Said (Jamel Debbouze), moves his mother to France, and in order to support her, turns to crime - first running a few prostitutes, and then slowly expanding. He brings shame on his mother, but he has no other way to make money - and he dreams of going straight. When Abdelkader gets out of jail, he immediately joins to the Revolutionary movement, and becomes one of its leaders. He wants to draft his brothers into the ranks, and although he is tired of violence, Messaoud agrees, and becomes the muscle. Said just wants to continue to make money - to him money is power, and so he is fighting in his own way. He certainly gives a lot of money to the movement that it needs to carry out its missions.

Days of Glory is one of the best war films in recent memories. Yes, it used war movie clichés - especially in terms of its characters - but that was somewhat the point of the film - to show that these Algerian soldiers were just like everyone else who fought for the Allies. That film used Saving Private Ryan as its blueprint in many ways, and this one seems inspired, as mentioned above, by The Godfather. There are scenes that deliberately call to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, and of course, that film also had three brothers - who were very different - at its core. Bouchareb’s filmmaking is visually striking with its dark tones, and shocking violence. He also gets good performances from his actors.

And yet, I do not think Outside the Law is nearly as accomplished as Days of Glory was. The main reason, I think, is that Bouchareb tries to cover too much ground. From it’s opening scene, set in 1916, to the end, well over 40 years is covered, and for the first half of the movie, the film seems to jump ahead two, three sometimes even five years every five minutes or so. After spending so much time with Said in the first part of the movie, he is pretty much abandoned once Abdelkader gets out of jail, and Messaoud comes back from Vietnam. For the rest of the film, he shows up periodically simply to argue about money and ideals. And by focusing on three characters, and trying to develop them all equally over the course of a movie just over two hours in length, none of them truly get the attention they deserve.

And yet the movie remains fascinating and involving from beginning to end. Whatever flaws the film has, they are outweighed by its virtues. The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar last year, and while I certainly don’t think it was quite good enough to deserve such recognition, it is still a fine film.

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