Outside the Law

Written by:
Beverly Berning
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Outside The Law (Hors-la- Loi)

Directed by Rachid Bouchareb
France 2010
Run Time: 137 minutes


Godard once quipped that “all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.” Rachid Bouchareb’s new film Outside the Law – which is up for an Oscar for best foreign film – has lots of guns, but really only one girl. It’s not a romance or anti-romance like Godard’s 1965 Pierrot Le Fou, which wants you to deconstruct it as it goes, but a powerful story that asks big questions. What does throwing off a colonial regime mean to the colonialist and the colonized, and what is the personal price of fighting to right social wrongs? What is the “moral nature” of fighting?

Outside the Law‘s release couldn’t be more timely, for who hasn’t been excited and moved by the Tunisian people’s ouster of dictator Ben Ali, or the recent Egyptian overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and his regime, including former vice president and torturer in chief Ali Suleiman? And there have been huge demonstrations in Bouchareb’s parents’ home country, Algeria, in recent days, which only goes to show you that, as Gertrude Stein used to say, “The only thing that changes is what people are looking at.” Outside the Law takes place in Algeria and France, and spans the years 1925 to 1962, the year of Algeria’s liberation from France. The film’s world premiere in May, 2010 in Cannes had the France Algerian colonial guard – le tricoleur supine – protesting in force.

Bouchareb’s story is both personal and epic. 1925: Three brothers – the scholarly, with glasses – revolutionary Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) ; the shortest one, Said (Jamel Debouzze), who starts off pimping in Paris, then runs a nightclub , and a boxing club ; the tallest, Messaoub (Roschdy Zem), and their poor parents are pushed off their hilltop land by an Arab collaborator and two gendarmes and resettled in the town of Setif, where on May 8, 1945 hundreds of Algerians celebrating VE Day and protesting colonial rule are massacred in the street by gendarmes and the army. Indochine, where conscripted Messaoub gets his political education as parachutes pop into a vacant sky, Abdelkader watching from his cell window as a fellow prisoner’s guillotined for resisting in the land where he was born. Abdelbaker and his fellow Algerians in France fighting for the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) against the equally committed but opposed – think Hamas vs. Fatah – MNA (Mouvement National Algerien) in a kind of turf / mafia war, with police head Faivre (Bernard Blancan) and his anti-terrorist forces battling both.

Film has always been about the language of images, and every good director casts actors for looks, because their gestures, voices, and even their silences can speak volumes, far beyond words, which Griffith, Abel Gance, and all of the great silent directors knew full well, and Bouchareb’s casting hits the nail on the head. Bouaglia embodies the intellectual committed to an abstract cause, Zem’s a regular guy who wants a regular life, and Debbouze, who’s far more charming than either, wants one full of adventure, and ease, each actor giving distinct, and completely different performances from their last team effort for Bouchareb, the 2006 Days of Glory (Indigenes), for which they received a richly deserved joint award that year from Cannes. And Chafia Boudraa is tremendous as their proud and loving mother.

Bouchareb’s visual style is succinct – most American directors, save Michael Mann, are worlds away from his precise yet emotive compression – and evocative, each scene given the necessary atmosphere and weight. Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne captures interiors and exteriors with equal ease – Algeria open white, beige, Paris closed grey, off green, dirty blue, black. Bouchareb is aided and abetted by Stephane Rollot’s and Edith Vesprerini’s beautiful period costumes – suits and hats for the men – with elegant dresses – Abdelkader’s beautiful girlfriend Helene (Sabrina Seyvecou) is a wardrobe mistress for a theatre in the film, and Armand Amar’s spare score seems to come out of and amplify the texture of a scene.

Critics like to carp and compare. This isn’t the masterpiece that Coppola’s The Godfather is. More than one has said that Bouchareb’s film doesn’t measure up to Pontecorvo’s faux 1966 doc The Battle of Algiers– and that his leans too much on Melville’s one about the French Resistance Les armes des ombres (1969). I found his 1950 version of Cocteau’s Les enfants terribles amateurish and unconvincing — but everything has to be judged on what it actually does, or doesn’t do. And Bouchareb’s tremendously moving film sheds much needed light on a still contested period in French colonial history. It also manages to offer a kind of answer to the question of struggle. “Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And God knows, while you do not.” (The Qur’an Sura 2:216)

c 2011 Michael McDonagh

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