Rachid Bouchareb’s breathless epic starts in 1945 with an Algerian family being unceremoniously turfed off the land where they have lived for generations, and then half-murdered by the police and army in a horrific massacre following an attempted march for independence. Of the three sons remaining, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), ‘the best in the class’, has been incarcerated, Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), the soldier, has been shipped off to fight in Indochina, and it is left to Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), the bandit, to drag his unwilling mother away from all this brutality to France in order to survive, vowing to return.
Outside the Law is a broad-brush history of the terrorist activities of the FLN in the struggle for Algerian independence, of their brutal repression by the French state, and the circle of escalating tit-for-tat depravities that followed. The opening half-hour or so detailed above has the audience sympathies firmly on the side of Abdelkader and Messaoud when they start their activities in 50s France, but those sympathies are increasingly questioned as the film progresses. Their inflexible revolutionary doctrine will require them to forego the comforts of normal life, finagle money from their brethren, kill and kill again, and ultimately to sacrifice their countrymen like pawns and make decisions that will destroy lives without deliberation. The state responds with intimidation, torture and outright murder, and its own brand of terrorism in the case of the activities of the ‘Red Hand’, whose members try to bomb and assassinate the FLN out of existence on French soil.
It is in this straightforward detailing of incident after incident that Outside the Law most resembles one of its clear models, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle of Algiers (1966). Near the beginning, Bouchareb’s film has a march that recalls those of The Battle of Algiers, and a scene where an imprisoned Abdelkader witnesses a political execution of one of his cellmates strongly echoes a similar scene in the earlier film. But whereas The Battle of Algiers adheres to a heightened documentary-style approach, concerned mainly with the events, the facts of the case, Outside the Law builds the historical business around a fictional family drama. This becomes clearer after its relocation to France, when the brothers emerge as distinct personalities. Saïd is apolitical and amoral, happy to grasp the opportunities the new country offers, forced into joining the revolution by blood ties. Messaoud is the reluctant soldier, committed to the cause but appalled by his own capacity for murder and the gulf it is opening between him and any chance of a normal life with his new family. Abdelkader is probably the least sympathetic, and most fascinating of the three, an intellectual turned revolutionary firebrand by his time in prison; his adherence to the practice and rhetoric of the FLN barely conceals a physical distaste for what this entails, and chinks in his true believer status emerge throughout.
The film’s breakneck pace and sheer amount of incident have their victims, alas: the three main female roles are never fully fleshed out as characters, and ultimately disappear from the narrative. As the titles ‘one year later’, ‘eight months later’ flash up scene after scene you may wish, like Messaoud, for a little breathing room outside of the struggle. A brief conversation about the merits, or lack thereof, of Western pop music in the last hour makes the viewer aware of how little humour or actual family life there has been in the depiction of this family. It’s to the credit of the three central performances that the characters seem as human as they do. The story necessitates a fair few sketched-in characters, a lot of exposition and some clunky on-the-nose dialogue along the way, problematically so in the opening Algerian section, where the compressed cavalcade of human misery and story information delivered in such a short space of time borders upon parody. None of this would be a problem had Outside the Law adhered to The Battle of Algiers‘ austere journalistic blueprint, and a lively argument could be had over what each film has gained or lost through its approach to filming contentious history. Incidentally, the climax of Bouchareb’s film occurs during the events that lie at the heart of Michael Haneke’s Hidden, now there’s a triple bill waiting to happen…
Ultimately, Outside the Law bulldozes through most objections with its sure-footed pace and wealth of tense, well-mounted set-pieces, a series of battles, killings and escapes set to a brooding pulsing score that will have most viewers gripped, if slightly battered and exhausted by the end of its 137 minutes. It’s handsome, confident large-scale cinema, with a fascinating historical heart. Take no prisoners stuff.