The French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim has the kind of screen presence one describes as “tabula rasa”: His face a perpetual, nagging blank, he’s ripe for corruption, be it by forces of good or evil. It served him well in A Prophet, in part because the filmmakers surrounded him with plenty of intrigue and because he was always bouncing off an actor, Niels Arestrup, oozing effortless charisma. In Free Men, there’s no Arestrup and little intrigue—this, despite a story concerning the revolutionary underworld of occupied Paris. It’s Rahim all the time, proving him unusually incapable of conveying dramatic political awakening.
As the focus of a story “freely inspired” by real events, Rahim’s Younes is a Vichy Muslim rounded up by the gestapo and forced to spy on a minority even more persecuted than his: Turns out local mosques have been passing fake IDs to targeted Jews. Nothing radicalizes like forced spying, and yet Younes is so vacant it takes half the movie for him to realize that his actions could put in harm’s way both a furtively Jewish singer with a pretty set of pipes (Mahmud Shalaby) and a local babe for whom he has the hots (Lubna Azabal).
Director/co-writer Ismaël Ferroukhi deserves a pat on the back for establishing then maintaining subtlety in a genre that so often vanquishes it. There are no speeches, no intrusive music—simply short scene after short scene of calm observation, quietly building to what appears to be the fireworks of Younes’ radical actualization. The actualization happens but not the fireworks. What initially appeared to be calm remove eventually wreaks of active disinterest. Not even the art department is trying, with period detail regulated to a couple SS uniforms.
Free Men could have been made by Younes himself, when the filmmakers could have at least sided a touch more with the aging imam played by Michael Lonsdale. (That he’s playing Muslim a year after essaying a monk in Of Gods and Men is fairly inspired casting.) The former Moonraker Bond villain has blossomed into cinema’s most charmingly and aggressively laidback epicurean, but he can at least be roused into furious action when needed. As with A Prophet, Rahim rises to the occasion only be suddenly sprouting facial hair.