Film Review: Outside the Law

Terrific Algerian/French drama, set against the decades-long fight for Algerian independence from France, follows the plight of three brothers who embody different commitments to this nationalistic cause and face different consequences.

Outside the Law from Rachid Bouchareb, director of the French box-office hit Indigenes, is an impressive, high-energy saga bursting with outstanding performances (especially from the three male leads), neatly contrived plotting that spans nearly four decades, and enough shoot-’em-up scenes to impress action fans. (The latter, of course, are not the target audience.)

Marketing challenges aside (a stellar French cast that carries less weight stateside and a length that simply weighs), art-house fans should bestow their b.o. dollars as critics bestow their respect. Algeria’s selection for an Oscar nom, the film displays admirable craft in every frame, even if there are a few too many. Additionally, it functions as an entertaining and clarifying history lesson about how and why Algeria fought France for the independence it finally won in 1962.

Refracted through one family’s experience, the story begins in 1925 Algeria as a poor Arab family is forced off the farmland they have owned for generations because privileged settlers in this French colony covet it and laws say they can have it. The three offspring in this family will grow up to avenge this and other injustices perpetrated by the French colonial rulers upon the indigenous peoples.

Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), when he was young, watched the pain and humiliation of parents banished from their property and forced to find shelter elsewhere. By 1945, he, the cocky extrovert among the three brothers, has developed a fondness for boxing. In Setif where he lives, he oversees an outdoor match while a nearby celebration for the end of World War II becomes a manifesto for Algerian independence that evolves into a cold-blooded, historic massacre of demonstrators and bystanders and the horrific retaliations that follow. Said witnesses the carnage, but, focused on earning a living and succeeding in the boxing world, he will remain the least radicalized of his brothers (although he does take care of the traitor who transferred his family’s property decades before).

Into the ’50s, brother Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) has been fighting with the French Army in Indochine, and Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), jailed for his pro-Algeria activism, is temporarily holed up in Paris’ Sante prison, where he witnesses the beheading of a fellow Algerian, an unrepentant independence fighter.

By the mid-’50s, after Saïd has seen Algerian-French animosities and violence escalate in Setif, he persuades his mother (Chafia Boudras) to migrate to France, where they settle in the shabby refugee shantytown of Nanterres near Paris. Abdel is released from prison and Messaoud returns from the French Army as Indochina, now Vietnam, emerges free of French rule. The family is reunited in Nanterres, but the ambitious Saïd, under the influence of a mentor, develops businesses in Pigalle, beginning in prostitution before moving to success with cabarets and boxing. He, alone among the brothers, resists the cause for Algerian independence.

But after the pro-Algerian FLN has infiltrated the local Renault factory and rejected its more passive rival, the MNA, Messaoud and Abdel plumb deeper into the fight for a free Algeria. They move underground with the FLN and into a more violent, dangerous life.

Events like the police disruption of Messaoud’s marriage as authorities hunt for an FLN assassin and the growth of the pro-Algerian cause throughout France embolden the brothers and their commitment to the FLN and its extreme measures. Even as Messaoud builds a family and Abdel takes up with Hélène (Sabrina Seyvesou), a French woman active in both theatre and the pro-Algerian cause, they remain ardent freedom fighters committed to extreme measures.

The French government answers such extremism with the Red Hand, a secret service mandated to fight violence with violence. Thus, the organization’s Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan), who is responsible for the bombing of Hélène’s car, becomes the brothers’ nemesis.

As the France-Algerian animosity escalates throughout France, so do the ties that bind the three brothers, even as Saïd is on the verge of promoting the biggest boxing match of his career. But it’s fate that steps into the ring.

Outside the Law always holds interest and impresses with its many virtues, which also include the authenticity of well-designed locations, sets and key events supported by judicious use of archival material. But the film is the latest example of how more is less, especially in terms of running time. The overextended boxing and action set-pieces could have been pruned enough to bring the film very comfortably under two hours, thus providing viewers with a more satisfying, bracing experience.