In Days of Glory (2006), director Rachid Bouchareb explored the often maligned French-Algerian soldiers who fought alongside their colonial ‘masters’ with exceptional bravery and loyalty despite having never set foot in France until the advent of the Second World War. The film’s release caused quite a stir in France, confronting its populace with an uncomfortable chapter in history many would rather forget or are too ashamed to openly discuss.
Fast forward half a decade and Bouchareb has returned to familiar territory with a larger budget than his last project, London River (2009), a much more low-key character based study set in the wake of the 7th of July terror attacks on London. It might have been this exploration of the effects of terrorism which determined the ambivalent stance of his latest foray into French-Algerian relations during the time of the FLN (the National Liberation Front of Algeria), a period of intense internal conflict and suffering on both sides that Bouchareb curiously neither condones or outright condemns. If London River stood as a memorial to victims of terror attacks and the agony of their relatives, Outside The Law is concerned with terrorism’s effectiveness as a political tool, and the answer is unnervingly blurred.
Beginning where Days of Glory essentially left off, the story follows three brothers wholly defined by their political stance and allegiances; Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is a soldier in the French army; Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) a political agitator; and Said (Jamel Debbouze) couldn’t care less, preferring boxing to anything else. Evicted from their home in 1925 under orders of the French government, they are soon forced to flee again by circumstances when Abdelkader is arrested during a riot in 1945 and sent to prison abroad.
Ten years later, Said and his mother are living in a shanty town on the outskirts of Paris waiting for Abdelkader’s imminent release. Rejoined by Messaoud, now a disillusioned ex-serviceman, the brothers soon realise their allegiances are split. Said has found a mentor in a pimp and now devotes his energy to training an Algerian boxer, Messaoud is torn between fighting for Algeria or settling down with a family while Abdelkader, radicalised during his stay behind bars, is determined to fight an armed resistance.
From its opening scene to the final credits, Outside the Law wears its cinematic influences on its proverbial sleeve. When government officials arrive to seize the family land, their approach and the resulting declaration of revenge is heavily reminiscent of John Ford Westerns, particularly the framing and their protracted approach from the horizon. Later, in the Parisian sequences, Bouchareb evokes all manner of film noir, from the hardboiled Hollywood variety to the cine-literate takes on the genre by the likes of Jean Pierre Melville. For a film that purports to represent an Algerian perspective, it is told in a highly Western mould, within a narrative framework those audiences will be familiar with.
Whilst tightly scripted and occasionally thrilling, combined with terribly two dimensional characterisation, and some questionable performances, Outside the Law winds up feeling a tad contrived, people handcuffed to their purpose as opposed to their experiences or motivations. In a typically half-hearted attempt at fleshing out a character, Meassoud is handed a wife and a child to little or no effect, other than to momentarily cause him to pause and think about his actions.
Neither entirely satisfactory nor faultless, Outside the Law ultimately frustrates, crying out for greater cohesiveness and a lesser predilection for the obvious. If only the central plot had been as accomplished as Bouchareb’s ability to create atmosphere and a sense of place, the whole would have been an infinitely more rewarding experience.