Outside the Law continues director Rachid Bouchareb’s dramatisation of Algeria’s long and bitter struggle for independence that he began with 2006′s WWII set Days of Glory. Bouchareb employs a more epic narrative structure in his latest film to evoke the grander sweeping style of Bertolucci or Coppola, and while not reaching those rarified heights, he’s made a moving film that is alternately tender and brutal and is largely successful in interweaving melodrama and larger scale action and historical events.
Three brothers (Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, the stars of Days of Glory) and their mother are thrown off their farm in Algeria, which sends them down paths they otherwise would not have taken. Messaoud (Zem) joins the French army, fighting a losing war in Indochina; Abdelkader (Bouajila) is radicalised by the marches and riots of 8th May 1945 and becomes a leader of the Algerian Independence Movement (FLN); Saïd (Debbouze ) is driven by the awful conditions of Paris’ refugee slums to seek his fortune in the underworld of Pigalle. Following his internment as a P.O.W. by the Vietnamese, the disillusioned Messaoud returns to his family in Paris, and Abdelkader works to convince him to join the fledging FLN cell he is trying to create; Messaoud’s initial reticence is eventually overcome by his brother’s passion. Saïd meanwhile flourishes in gangland, first as a pimp and then as a nightclub owner and boxing impresario, determined to make his mark for Algeria by discovering and fostering an Algerian champion. As the FLN’s campaign of violence grows and its ranks swell, the French authorities employ ever more desperate and equally violent tactics to try and eradicate the threat, forcing all three brothers to compromise their ideals and lives for the freedom of their people.
The film depicts the Algerian cause as one which was not without extreme compromises in the pursuit of its goal; as is the case with many ethnic, nationalist or religious freedom movements (including the IRA and the Taliban in Afghanistan), the profits of criminality are readily accepted into the organisation’s coffers, the end justifying the means. The three leads ably convey the passions and desperation of men who embrace a life of criminality and terrorism as the only means to end oppression, and each man is corrupted and damaged by his immersion in a ruthless struggle in which questionable actions are undertaken. Roschdy Zem as ex soldier Messaoud is the most affecting of the three, a man whose quiet demeanour barely masks his obvious inner turmoil about the murderous tasks he undertakes at his brother’s behest. Abdelkader is played by Sami Bouajila with an almost monastic intensity; his demeanour is that of the true believer, a fervent proselytiser who grows increasingly dismayed with the savage and immoral depths the movement sinks to. Jamel Debbouze’s gangster Saïd is the least interesting of the three brothers, but that is mainly down to the familiarity of his ‘downtrodden member of an ethnic group who turns to crime’ subplot. Saïd’s inevitable redemption does serve as a neat counterpoint to his brothers’ inevitable corruption.
The film’s longish running time never drags, as there are enough skilfully executed action sequences (a few of which seem to deliberately evoke Melville’s French resistance classic Army of Shadows) to keep the viewer gripped when the pace threatens to falter. Outside the Law‘s greatest strength is its stark depiction of the frailties and terrible, questionably justifiable compromises that befall heroic men fighting for great causes, as they are no less prone to acts of hideous brutality and moral betrayal than the oppressors they seek to overcome.