REVIEW: Outside the Law a Sketchy Portrait of Brothers in Terror
A companion film to Days of Glory, Rachid Bouchareb's 2006 feature about Algerian soldiers who fought for France in World War II, Outside the Law is another historical drama with a heavy heart and a knack for genre. Where Days of Glory inhabited the grimy trenches of the combat movie, Outside the Law frames the story of three Algerian brothers angling for a revolution in post-war France within the look and feel of a gangster epic. As in his previous film, the narrative is a portal to writer/director Bouchareb's ongoing examination of Algeria's struggle against colonial rule, and the legacy of those who fought both for France and against her, often in the same lifetime.
For Lebanon World War II was an opportunity to slip out of the grip of French occupation; for Algeria the end of the war seemed to bring only more misery. Bouchareb opens the film with brief scene of an Algerian homeowner and his family being ejected, under French order, from their ancestral home in 1925: Oaths are sworn; a handful of dirt sifts through cracked fingers; the viewer buckles to her knees under the pressure of displacement cliché.
A jump to May, 1945, contrasts V-Day celebrations in Paris with the massacre that occurred in Sétif, Algeria, when a civil rights march turned violent. In the madness (it is estimated that as many as 45,000 died) the patriarch of the initial vignette and several of his children are killed; three sons, Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), and Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) and their mother (Chafia Boudraa) survived. The sequence is chaotic and terrifying -- blood begets panic begets blood in a hideous escalation -- but its motivations and import are little understood. Bouchareb lets the events stand in broad terms as the inevitable consequence of decades of the repression he established with similarly dubious economy in the preceding scene.
That choice begins to make more sense as the film and its restless, itinerant structure takes shape: Bouchareb has places to go and subplots to sketch out. From the massacre we head to 1953, the year Saïd decides to take his mother to France, where they might eventually reunite with his brothers. Living in a tin roof slum in Nanterre, the pugnacious Saïd decides he's not really a Renault kind of guy, forgoing factory work to try his hand at pimping in the Pigalle district of Paris. Meanwhile, in Indochina, sweet, somber Messaoud and his fellow soldiers are about to get spanked clean out of the country; it's a defeat that seems to inspire the native Algerian rather than, well, defeat him. Meanwhile meanwhile, the dissident Abdelkader is being radicalized in prison under the tutelage of a man utters call-to-action koans like, "Repression always benefits the people seeking freedom."
Reunited with his brothers in France, Abdelkader is determined to grow a branch of Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN), and wants his brothers for seedlings. Saïd is by then well on his way to managing both a Parisian club and an Algerian boxer, and he wants no part of the cause. Messaoud is more dutiful, and together they begin plotting terrorist attacks and settling inter-faction disputes with brutal violence. A French radio report describes "fanatical Muslim elements" in thrall to a "rage born of despair," but as the film goes on (and on; Outside the Law weighs in at 138 minutes) that's a description we have to accept on faith. Aside from the occasional "insha'allah," Islam seems to play little part in the brothers' lives or their cause, and Abdelkader seems more pathological than righteously inflamed when he seethes about the revolution stopping for no man -- not even his brother.
The FLN cause recedes from view even before Abdelkader has his sit-down with the police colonel (Bernard Blancan) who will organize a counterterrorism unit to take him down. The meeting serves mainly as an opportunity for the film to draw an explicit parallel between the work of the FLN and that of the French Resistance a decade before, though the crackle between them is as close as the film gets -- without the aid of heavy arms fire -- to the gangster noir feel it seems to covet.
Going for epic sweep, Bouchareb attenuates the narrative so that each event-based, datelined sequence -- several of which are energetic and well-styled -- and leap forward in time privileges situation over story. The characters are also dedicated types with little motivational latitude, which means that despite strong performances they aren't much help in holding this fragmented film together. The purported climax -- a 1960 operation based out of Germany -- feels mostly like a high point in the film's indulgence in unmoored set pieces. The jubilant footage of Algeria's 1962 independence celebration is just one more sequence that feels too isolated from those that came before.