Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb's Outside the Law follows three brothers who are deported to France after their father dies in The Sétif massacre. Although this specific cultural strife may not be familiar to people outside France and Algeria, the underlying theme of colonial power forced upon the underdog is universally familiar. Outside the Law is epic in scale and comparable in tone and scope to other crime sagas like The Untouchables or Once Upon a Time in America, as such it could well break out of its arthouse confines. It has the added honor of being Algeria's Oscar contender in the best foreign language category.
Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) joins the French army fighting in Indochina, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) becomes a leader of the Algerian independence movement in France and Saïd (Jamel Debbouze) moves to Paris to make his fortune in the shady clubs and boxing halls of Pigalle. Gradually, their interconnecting destinies reunite them. The film tracks the family until 1962, the year Algeria won independence.
Bouchareb has attracted criticism for his portrayal of the massacre of May 8, 1945, at which the French Army was responsible for the deaths of many Algerian pro-independence demonstrators. In the wake of Sétif, the situation spiraled out of control and led to the massacre of thousands of Algerians. His depictions of the internal struggles of Algeria's liberation movements have also been the subject of controversy.
As a thriller and a drama, it has close kinship to the Oscar-nominated Days of Glory, and reunites some of the same cast and crew. Days of Glory dramatized the discrimination suffered by North Africans fighting for France in the Second World War.
The performances in Outside the Law are excellent (topped by Bouajila as Abdelkader) and the dialogue manages to encapsulate various debates without feeling preachy or false. It's an impressive achievement, an engaging piece of entertainment and a powerful rallying cry for a nation to think more deeply about its colonial past and the ancestry of many of its citizens.
When it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year many of the "pied-noirs" (the French who had made North Africa their home and who returned to France after independence) staged a demonstration, suggesting the film was "anti-French" and "pro-terrorism." Bouchareb was at pains to point out that his film was a drama, even if it focused on events that provoked painful memories.
The director may bring a partisan passion to his subject, but the power of the narrative goes beyond such concerns.
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan, Chafia Boudraa, Sabrina Seyvecou and Assaad Bouab
Director/Screenwriter: Rachid Bouchareb
Producer: Jean Bréhat
Genre: Drama; French- and Arabic-languages, subtitled
Running time: 137 min
Release date: November 3 NY, November 10 LA, November 26 ltd.