Outside the Law in Algeria

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 16, 2011

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Rachid Bouchareb makes Hollywood-style movies in which European Arabs are the heroes; he’s the Edward Zwick for Middle Easterners. Indigènes was, as confirmed by the American title Days of Glory, Zwick’s Glory rejiggered for the unsung Algerians who helped liberate France during WWII. Outside the Law, meanwhile, is a close cousin to Defiance, exploiting the armed rise for Algerian independence from the country that has now cradled this film into existence.

To handle two decades of bloody conflict, Bouchareb takes a cue familiar to those who made the miniseries The ’60s and The ’70s, viewing messy history through the sharp prism of one family. Displaced after the 1945 Sétif massacre, three brothers are pushed into three conveniently disparate life paths: fiery revolutionary Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) winds up hardened in prison; reluctant badass Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) winds up in the military; and scrappy Saïd (scrunchy-faced Jamel Debbouze) talks his way into the world of boxing and night clubs. The three reconvene in the City of Lights, where at least two of them agree to wage a war on enemy soil.

Admittedly, the Zwick comparison is unfair: They may be attracted to similar matter, but Bouchareb is far less insistent, far more cold in temperament and thoughtful, allowing in complexities Zwick would smooth over with a sander. Our heroes’ ultimate goal may be noble, but revolution is a dirty business, and matters become unpleasant long before the police have formed their own retaliatory squad that gets to act in the manner of the film’s Steven Seagal-esque title.

Another one-up on Zwick: Bouchareb is far less humorless. Outside the Law may be grave in tone, but it can’t resist playing to genre; it’s half-stirring docudrama, half-old school gangster film, complete with paraphrases of The Godfather and The Untouchables. (A revolutionary tailor even performs a Gallic version of the Chicago Code.) Moreso than his previous efforts, Bouchareb has made a mostly tolerable version of a kind of American film that ought to be stamped out of existence. Luckily, damning with faint praise is still praise.

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