Hors-la-loi (Outside the Law), the latest film from iconoclastic French director Rachid Bouchareb, was originally mooted for a Bay Area run last November, but its release was abruptly and mysteriously cancelled at the last minute. Since then, a lot has happened: the winds of revolution once again began blowing through the streets of North Africa, and the film was nominated for an Academy Award. Outside the Law’s distributor, Cohen Media Group, clearly knew something the rest of us didn’t.
Now scheduled to open this Friday, February 11 at the Shattuck Cinemas, Outside the Law begins in 1925, as colonial authorities evict an Algerian family from the land they have farmed for as long as anyone can remember. This appalling injustice provides a searing life lesson for the family’s three young children, who grow up to become the film’s mid-century protagonists: eldest brother Abdelkadir (Sami Bouajila), a radical newly released from jail after serving time for his political activities; Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), a solider in the French army newly returned home from a tour of duty in Indochina; and apolitical runt of the litter Said (Jamel Debbouze), who’s more interested in his fledgling career as a boxing promoter than he is in revolution.
After the brothers re-unite in a Nanterre shantytown populated by North African factory workers, veteran activist Abdelkadir tries to convince his siblings to join him in the struggle for Algerian independence. Messaoud—whose battlefield experiences have taught him that French imperial might has its limits—is a quick convert to the cause, but Said remains unconvinced. When the elder brothers begin proselytizing to their fellow workers on behalf of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the police begin to pay attention to the family—attention which Said, whose primary interest is making money, doesn’t appreciate.
Among those trying to tamp down Algerian aspirations are Faivre (Bernard Blacan), the commander of The Red Hand, a secretive counter-insurgency group. Though Faivre has a grudging respect for Abdelkadir, who has rapidly ascended to the top of the FLN’s ranks, he has orders from on high: eliminate the revolutionary movement by any means necessary. When the Algerians assassinate a high-ranking policeman named Picot, the gloves come off and the violence escalates on both sides.
Outside the Law is effectively a sequel to Bouchareb’s earlier Days of Glory (Indigenes), which related the experiences of three North African soldiers fighting for France during the Second World War. Though Days of Glory features the same three leads playing characters named Abdelkadir, Messaoud, and Said, they are not the same characters depicted in Outside the Law. It’s an interesting artistic conceit suggesting that the experiences of World War II helped forge an Algerian national identity that previously hadn’t existed.
It’s impossible to watch this film without thinking of Gillo Pontecorvo’s epic feature The Battle of Algiers — and the comparison is not always an entirely favorable one. How could it be? Pontecorvo’s film remains one of the landmarks of modern cinema, as breathtaking and insightful today as it was forty years ago. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, Outside the Law drags a bit at times, and its reliance on traditional storytelling structure makes it seem rather quaint in comparison to its predecessor, which eschewed narrative arc in favor of action, polemic, and revolutionary fervor. Bouchareb’s film seems a bit older, a bit wiser, and a bit more traditional than Pontecorvo’s.
Battle of Algiers admirers are, however, still advised to check out Outside the Law, especially for the performances of Bouajila and Blancan, who convey cold-blooded loyalty to their respective causes to chilling effect. Whether or not Outside the Law deserves to win this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, both performances should have drawn the Academy’s attention. Perhaps the Cesars will come knocking instead.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.