Film: Milos Stehlik reviews controversial "Outside the Law"

March 25, 2011

Milos Stehlik

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"Outside the Law" follows three brothers during the French-Algerian war.

The line between revolutionary and terrorist is often a thin one. Much depends on context and perception. This concept is very much at the center of Rachid Bouchareb’s film, Outside The Law. Rachid Bouchareb is French-born of Algerian descent.

The film premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival amid much-heightened security.Protests by French veterans of the Algerian war and members of the far-right National Front, who objected that the film was “anti-French” and that it was “historically revisionist,” caused concern amongst the festival organizers.

But miracles do happen, and Outside The Law not only survived the protests, but garnered an Academy Award nomination as an Algerian entry, and not from France, despite the fact that 59% of the production budget came from France, 21% from Algeria, 10% from Tunisia and 10% from Belgium.

The genesis of the film’s narrative is classic: local Algerian officials invoke the law to dispossess a family of their ancestral land. The family ends up in the city of Setif, where twenty years later, the mother and three sons confront the May, 1945 massacre in Setif, in which police opened fire on a non-violent march of Algerian nationalists.

The tragedy politicizes Abdelkader, one of the three brothers, who becomes an activist, gets arrested, and ends up imprisoned in France. This only politicizes him even more. Messaoud, the second brother, is a veteran soldier who fought with the French Army in Indochina. Though his sympathies lie with the cause to free Algeria, he sticks to the straight and narrow. Messaoud has a wife and newborn son and does not want to be involved. Said, the third brother, takes on the world as it is. He cuts deals, runs a nightclub and trains a young Algerian boxer. Said helps his two other brothers financially, but wants nothing to do with politics.

The film ultimately becomes a cat-and-mouse game with a French police detective determined to break the FLN independent Algerian movement. This dramatic trajectory, as well as sometimes over-dramatized situations, are less interesting than the new light Outside The Law shines on the fight for Algerian independence. Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 film, Battle of Algiers, is the de facto film of record.

In Outside The Law, Rachid Bouchareb reveals the war for Algerian independence as it took place on French soil — as the National Liberation Front brings terror and war home to the colonialists, on their home ground. At the same time, through three divergent attitudes the brothers have about being involved in terrorist acts, Bouchareb explores the process of politicization — how the colonialist regime’s blindness, heavy-handed suppression of protest and brutality —solidify the opposition, and give credence to its more extremist brutal acts.

Of the three brothers, Messaoud, the middle brother, with military training in Indochina, gradually embraces the National Liberation Front to become its military strategist and chief architect, unleashing terror through bold assassinations and bombings. For the three principal roles, Bouchareb casts his actors, Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem and Jamel Debhouze, from his breakthrough 2006 film, Indigenes, which told the story of North Africans during France’s liberation from Nazi occupation.

But try as it may, subtlety and nuance are missing from the structural palette of Outside The Law. The film’s reach probably exceeds its grasp as it tries too hard for an epic scope that’s outside of its limited dramatic material. But this does tend to be the fate of the dispossessed — or at least those anxious to tell stories they feel are vital and urgent — because they just haven’t been told. But sometimes they shout — when a whisper would suffice.

Milos Stehlik’s commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ. His reviews air on Fridays.