French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law” has all makings of an epic saga. His story charts the big, transformative beats of three main characters against the backdrop of two nations’ shifting political fortunes across nearly 40 years of mid-20th Century history. Briskly paced and tautly acted, “Outside the Law” also stubbornly remains a film of surfaces: Its characters are alive with passion and purpose, but the script and direction lack the necessary facility for fleshing out complex, conflicted human beings.
Aiming to examine the relationships of three Algerian brothers between the 1920s and the early 1960s when Algeria won its independence from France, the project demands keen dramatic and humanist sensibilities. But, as much as we grow to understand them, the characters in Bouchareb’s tale remain static, just cardboard stand-ins for Big Ideas – Sacrifice, Freedom, Ambition – and never appeal to us as organic, sympathetic creations.
In 1920s Algeria, three sons, Saïd, Messaoud and Abdelkader find that French colonial authorities have uprooted them and their parents from their ancestral home. Fast forward twenty years, and we see that Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is an agitator for Algerian independence, participating in nationalist demonstrations. The younger Saïd, however, runs a boxing racket, managing scrappy street fighters and taking bets. After French police open-fire on a massive demonstration, Abdelkader gets hauled off to French prison along with scores of fellow revolutionists. Fast forward another 8 years and we find Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) fighting in Indochina as a French Army soldier while Abdelkader continues to whet his political anger behind bars. Saïd and his long-suffering mother (Chafia Boudraa) escape Algeria, finding shelter in a shantytown with other Algerian refugees outside Paris. Here, Saïd starts off as a small-time pimp before graduating to a more deluxe gangster lifestyle as a cabaret owner.
“Outside the Law’s” action kicks into gear once Messaoud returns from war and he teams up with the now-released Abdelkader in backing a militant-nationalist outfit. Freedom for Algeria is a sacred goal for Abdelkader, one for which he and those closest to him must be willing to sacrifice everything: He struggles to resist returning the affections of a lovely French sympathizer (Sabrina Seyvesou), and he throws a wrench in Saïd’s dream of managing a champion boxer. And, as much he vowed never to kill again, the former soldier Massaoud turns essentially into Abdlekader’s henchman, guilt-ridden and distant from his new wife and son.
The film’s last third settles into a cat-and-mouse game as French Army investigator, Faivre (Bernard Blancan), leads a crack team to hunt down Abdelkader and his co-conspirators. Having thus far failed to find his dramatic footing, Bouchareb at last finds what he wants to make: A film of chases, assassinations and machine-gun battles, a kind of politicized gangster chronicle. Had “Outside the Law” succeeded in its earlier, more difficult passages as an interpersonal drama about compromised dreams, this section might’ve felt profound, especially as it would’ve underscored the ironies and tragic costs of freedom and nationhood.
But where’s the heartbreak when no one deviates from their pre-set programming? Abdelkader, Messaoud and Saïd are one-way characters, their cross-purposes and conflicting motives too often feel repetitive. Apart from one wonderful scene in which Abdelkader and Messaoud joke about the dance-ability of American pop music, the brothers’ relationships never feel familiar, nuanced, but humorless, almost robotic. Their mother too is merely a clench-jawed emblem of perennial sacrifice. Bouchareb marks time skimming the surfaces of his characters’ souls before he give himself free rein to let the bullets fly.
Directed by: Rachid Bouchareb
Written by: Rachid Bouchareb
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan, Sabrina Seyvesou, Samir Guesmi, Thibault de Montalembert