In "Outside the Law," the sprawling and at times emotionally distant epic tracing Algerian resistance to French occupation from early days to exodus, writer-director Rachid Bouchareb has, in a sense, told his own story.
Born in Paris into a family that was part of the Algerian immigration wave, the filmmaker begins his story of three brothers in 1925 on the day when the French conscripted their ancestral farm in a desolate corner of Algeria. For the children, the loss is defined by their mother's weeping as she scoops dirt into a worn bit of cloth to take with them and their father's insistence that they never forget their roots. It is an opening scene filled with repressed pathos, with cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne capturing the beauty of a harsh land, the callousness of the French soldiers, the hopelessness of a displaced family.
But before their journey truly begins, the filmmaker throws down another defining moment — the now-grown boys swept up in a 1945 protest march in Sétif with countless Algerians cut down by the police. The image of bodies lining the streets reshapes the men. It also serves to shift the tone of the film, which grows increasingly darker as it follows the brothers to France, into the heart of the resistance, moving toward the independence that Algeria would finally gain in 1962.
The plight of those trying to navigate cultural, racial and political conflicts is a theme Bouchareb keeps returning to from his 1995 breakthrough, "Dust of Life," on Vietnam's Amerasian outcast children, to last year's "London River," with its Christian-Muslim divide. But the film that has defined him until now is 2006's moving "Days of Glory," its ensemble cast honored at Cannes and the film an Oscar nominee in the foreign language category. Its story of North African soldiers who fought on French soil during World War II helped spark pension reform for these forgotten veterans and solidified Bouchareb's significance as a filmmaker.
The director picks up the threads of that story and digs even deeper into war's inherent brutality in "Outside the Law," imagining what the Paris-based Algerians and their underground fight to free their homeland from French colonial rule might look like. (The film is Algeria's Oscar entry this year.)
Jamel Debbouze, Sami Bouajila and Roschdy Zem, who were among the stars of "Days of Glory," are excellent as the adult brothers Said, Abdelkader and Messaoud. Each represents a different political point of view: Abdelkader (Bouajila) is the first to arrive in Paris, a political prisoner molded by his time behind bars into a resistance fighter and the revolutionary soul of the film.
Messaoud (Zem) is learning his own hard lessons in Indochina, where he lands as a soldier for France, survives as a prisoner of war, then comes to Paris a changed man. But Debbouze's Said is the scene-stealing charmer. He brings his irascible mother to France and sets about building an empire from the bleak, mud-caked Algerian ghetto on the outskirts of the City of Light. Whether it's his backstreet nightclub or the Algerian boxer he's betting on, his resistance to the resistance may be the best thing about the film.
What life the brothers have outside of politics is relegated to a few morsels and therein lies the challenge for Bouchareb: How to juggle the complexity of a fast-moving counterrevolution with emotionally rich personal stories? The filmmaker is at his best unspooling the politics of independence, which he does with such confident fervor that you always understand the fight. It is the heart of the brothers that sometimes confounds him and you can't help but regret that somewhere along the way he lost sight of the men.