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"Free Men": Shallow Protagonist Stunts Emotional Development 

Wednesday, Apr 4 2012
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Another loosely factual gloss on a little-known chapter from Nazi-occupied Europe, Free Men tells of a Vichy France mosque that supplied North African Jews with fraudulent Muslim identification, even as Parisian authorities bore down on the place of worship. The political awakening of Algerian immigrant Younes (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim), tied closely to his relationship with the Jewish singer Salim (Mahmoud Shalaby), provides the drama, such as it is — director/co-writer Ismaël Ferroukhi includes a smattering of close calls and double-crosses, but mostly his solidarity story consists of characters speaking in low tones while seated indoors. "You know why I'm here — to make my pile and go home," says black marketer Younes early on as he declines his cousin's invitation to a Resistance meeting. After being hauled in by the police, Younes buys back his freedom by agreeing to spy on the comings and goings in the local mosque's paradisiacal courtyard. There, he first hears Salim sing, eyes a mysterious mosque worker (Lubna Azabal), and sits down with the noble resident rector (Michael Lonsdale, in a nice reversal of his role in last year's Of Gods and Men as a French monk in Algeria). This all spins Younes around to the side of the freedom fighters. But Free Men never feels like a movie about a developing conscience, due largely to the shallowness of the protagonist as written and, by extension, Rahim's portrayal: Younes lights up in the few moments when he watches Salim perform onstage; otherwise, he hardly appears to have an inner life at all.

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Benjamin Mercer

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