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‘Free Men' a tribute to resistance fighters everywhere
“Free Men” will be shown Thursday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. in the Historic Yuma Theater, 254 S. Main St. The screening, part of the Arizona Western College Foundation's “Thursdays at the Theatre,” includes an independent short film and a hosted discussion. Language is French with English subtitles. Run time of the feature is 99 minutes; admission is $5.
The recent French film “Free Men” tells a not-so-recent story that is perhaps more timely today than ever — of Muslims and Jews fighting side by side against oppression, and specifically of Muslims risking everything to save Jews from persecution and certain death.
Based on true events during two years of the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II, the film depicts the highest degree of heroism in people who might not be expected to care about those they're helping.
Not my war
Younes, a North African immigrant who has long since lost his factory job during the hard times of the Occupation, has turned to black-marketing scarce luxuries like coffee and cigarettes. He just wants to make his pile and go back home, he says. He isn't a complete lowlife; he sends most of the proceeds to his family back in Algeria. But he's not so altruistic as to join the French Resistance, like his cousin Ali.
“It's not my war,” Younes says. And, indeed, his native country has long since been a second-class colony of France.
But Younes's days of neutrality suddenly end when his apartment building is raided by the police of the puppet Vichy French government. The subversive Ali gets away, but the petty criminal Younes gets hauled in for possession of contraband, and the authorities are delighted to blackmail him into becoming a mole for them.
It's not a bad deal, really. Not only will Younes be able to go on with his illegal activities, but he'll be well paid in the bargain. All he has to do is start attending the Mosque of Paris and report any unusual comings and goings.
And indeed many of the circumstances there are worth noting. The resident rector appears pretty cozy with a particular Nazi officer, Major von Ratibor. In turn, the Major seems to have a particular interest in a young singer who attends the mosque — “one of the best voices in the Arab world.” And then there's the mysterious young woman who scrubs laundry in the courtyard fountain and who disappears into the maze of corridors whenever Younes tries to approach her.
How long will Younes be able to remain an enemy of his own people? His first test comes when he's sent to spy on the singer, Salim. The police suspect that Salim is consorting with Commies; but if he is that's the least of his secrets, and Younes can't quite bring himself to report all of them, especially after the two men bond during a couple of nights out on the town.
And what about the accusation that the Caliph is helping to hide Jews by issuing them false identity papers showing they're Muslims? If Younes gets proof of that, will he turn it over and bring down the whole mosque, maybe even compromising relations between the Axis and the Arab world?
For better or worse, Younes just isn't a very good spy. The rector has been onto him from the beginning. After all, Younes never attends prayer but just hangs around the fountain. And when he finds who's hiding out in the cellars, he might even get drawn reluctantly into some double-agenting. If he's lucky, the cops will just fire him for incompetence.
And all this is just the beginning of the intrigue. The filmmakers are somehow able to take the lives of historical figures and transform them into thrilling wartime fare. However, viewers should be ready for an unexpected resolution of some of these relationships. After all, this is reality and not a Hollywood romance.