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For Your Consideration: 'Free Men'

The French director and screenwriter Ismaël Ferroukhi, who was born in Morocco, had a breakthrough with his first major feature, Le Grand Voyage, in 2004, winning the Leone del Futuro prize for best first-time filmmaker at the Mostra Biennale in Venice. He co-wrote his new film, released in France as Les hommes libres, with screenwriter Alain-Michel Blanc and input from two historians, Benjamin Stora and Pascal Le Pautremat. It is a melancholy little movie set in the North African quarter of Paris, which follows the story of Muslims associated with the Grande Mosquée de Paris during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Having come to France as workers in the 1920s and 30s, these men and women are trapped in Paris during the occupation, and their earlier participation in labor unions has given them a taste for their own freedom. They hide those running from the Nazis, including North African Jewish families (some of the children hidden at the mosque have spoken about their experiences there), and they become involved in the French Resistance.

Most of the characters in the film are based on real people, although the details of the story are not necessarily historical. At the center is Younès, a young man just trying to make his own way who gets swept into a moral struggle greater than him -- created as a composite of several such men in Paris at the time. The role sits somewhat uneasily on the shoulders of Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), who does not seem able to show the full range of emotion the part demands, or perhaps by aiming too much toward subtlety the performance lacks much nuance. The same is true in some ways of another young actor, Mahmoud Shalaby, who plays Salim Halali, a young singer of Arabic songs who happens to be Jewish. The officials at the mosque have been creating false identity documents to pass off Jews as Muslims, a ploy that ultimately saves the singer's life.

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At the center of these activities is Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, a representative of the Sultan of Morocco in Paris and the founder of the Institut Musulman at the Grande Mosquée de Paris. He is brought to life with the usual grace and subtlety by Michael Lonsdale, who told an interviewer that Ben Ghabrit was a friend of his family (although he was too young to have met him, his aunts, who had been raised in colonial families in Algeria, used to smoke hashish, not illegal then, with him.) With this fine performance, Lonsdale continues to work his way through the world religions, having already played a Benedictine abbot (The Name of the Rose, a Trappist monk (Of Gods and Men), and a devotee of Japanese samurai (Ronin). What makes the film so watchable is the evocation of occupied Paris (cinematography by Jérôme Alméras) -- and a part of that city's history that remains largely unknown. Set design (Catherine Jarrier-Prieur) and costumes (Virginie Montel) are beautiful and detailed, although the scenes in the mosque were shot, not in the Grande Mosquée de Paris, which is a sacred space, but on location in Morocco, at a gorgeous palace in Rabat. The story ranges widely, perhaps too widely, for its hour and a half: workers' rights, the French Resistance, Algerian and Moroccan hopes for independence. It is best just to let yourself be submerged in the cultural milieu, swept along by the beautiful score of North African and Andalusian traditional music, composed by Armand Amar and sung by Pinhas Cohen.

This film opens today in Washington, D.C., exclusively at Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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