During World War II, Younes Bendaoud (Tahar Rahim), an Algerian immigrant, lives in France and sells black market goods in hopes of making enough money to move back to Algeria. After the police arrest him, he agrees to spy on a local Paris mosque in order to avoid serving time in jail. They suspect the mosque's authority figures, i.e. its rector, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale), of hiding Jews from North Africa by giving them false identities as Muslims. Younes eventually befriends Salim Halali (Mahmud Shalaby) an Algerian singer who's among the Jews hiding out as a Muslim, and Leila (Lubna Azabal), an employee at the mosque. Soon enough, he risks his life when he ceases to spy on the mosque for the police and joins the freedom fighters.
Despite an initially intriguing premise and decent performances, especially by Tahar Rahim, who you might remember from A Separation, the weak screenplay co-written by Ismaël Ferroukhi and Alain-Michel Blanc simply doesn't do the film any justice because it fails to generate any palpable thrills, excitement, suspense or drama. A film that centers around a spy's change-of-conscience could easily have the potentially to be powerful, provocative, riveting and even with an intelligent screenplay; Free Men feels rather pedestrian, uninvolving and bland. You never really have the chance to slow down to get to know Younes and to grasp what he's thinking or feeling ---or to care about him as a human being for that matter, so you’ll never feel emotionally invested in his transformation from a spy to a freedom fighter.
Just when you think the plot will suddenly turn into a taut dramatic thriller or action thriller, it doesn't go in either of those directions or in any particularly interesting ones, so you'll essentially feel teased, disappointed and ultimately underwhelmed. The same can be said about the third act that’s doesn’t feel as exciting as it could have been even though it does feature a much-needed albeit brief action sequence.
The Kid With a Bike
11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) breaks out of an orphanage to find his father (Jérémie Renier) who had abandoned him. He desperately wants to live a normal life with his father, but he's unwilling to acknowledge the fact that his father doesn't want to see him anymore. He feels saddened when he learns that his bicycle had been sold by him--a metaphor for their relationship--so Cyril searches for that precious bike. A friendly hairdresser, Samantha (Cécile de France), not only helps him get his bike back, but also takes him under her care. She represents the small glimmer of hope, happiness, love, compassion and friendship that's missing from his life. No matter what, though, Cyril doesn't feel content without his father around, and he stubbornly refuses to give up attempting to reunite with him--or to face the harsh reality of the situation for that matter. He soon enters a dangerous lifestyle when he befriends a local thug, Wes (Egon Di Mateo), who teaches him how to beat people up and rob them, an extreme way of channeling his bottled-up rage and frustrations.
Co-writers/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, a.k.a. The Dardenne Brothers, have woven a richly textured and human drama brimming with warmth, tenderness and pure, unadulterated poignancy. Rarely has a film captured the complex thoughts and feelings of a troubled young boy with such honesty without going over-the-top or losing its focus. It also helps that child actor Thomas Doret gives a brave, well-nuanced performance as Cyril that tugs at your heartstrings from the very first scene. Cyril's friendship with Samantha feels palpably sweet, and you'll find it interesting to observe how their relationship evolves as Cyril struggles to accept the fact that his father abandoned him. His emotional journey takes you on a roller coaster ride that's difficult to describe or even explain--it's best to simply experience it because words wouldn't be able to do it any justice. Moreover, the well-chosen music score perfectly compliments the film's tone and keeps you even further engrossed.
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