Tahar Rahim’s breakout role in A Prophet was the kind about which most actors only dream. That the work he’s done since then hasn’t compared is disappointing but to be expected. While Free Men, a drama set in occupied France in 1942, isn’t on the same level as Jacques Audiard’s prison epic, it does provide another showcase for Rahim’s admirable ability to transform convincingly from callow kid to formidable badass over the course of a film. In this case, he plays a former factory worker turned low-level black marketeer in Paris, dealing cigarettes and tea to the Algerians who’ve decided to stay in the city through the war. He’s got no loyalty to anything but his family back home, to whom he sends money, until his hotel is raided and in exchange for his freedom he’s asked to inform on the goings-on of the immigrant community.
It’s through this unlikely channel that Rahim slowly gets involved in the resistance effort, learning that the cousin who brought him to France is already a member and meeting people like Lubna Azabal, whose brother is being held in a German camp, and Mahmud Shalaby, an Algerian Jew trying to pass a Muslim with forged papers. At first reluctant (“Why fight? It’s not our war”), he’s soon hiding children whose parents were arrested in the basement of the mosque while its director, played by Michael Lonsdale, meets with and fends off the Germans with polite cunning.
Free Men offers a pleasing historical escape via a story of everyone setting aside religious, colonial, and ethnic divides to unite against the Nazis. It’s an uplifting tale, if one that gets to a slow start and muddles through scenes of exposition for longer than seems necessary before finally getting to its sequences of action and suspense. Many of the figures, including the ones played by Lonsdale and Shalaby, are real people, but Rahim’s is a composite, a stand-in for unrecognized resistance fighters. Despite a solid turn from the actor, the character retains a generic aura; he’s primarily a dramatic means through which to observe the era. It’s only his relationship with Shalaby, a talented and charismatic singer with a hedonistic air, that has the feel of something tangible. The two become friends and possibly something more—a late revelation about the musician’s sexual preferences clearly throws Rahim but doesn’t bother him—and their status is left an open question, the lone complex touch in an otherwise by-the-book affair.