Revolution is messy stuff, full of hands-on acts of violence, considerable moral compromise, and nearly immeasurable personal sacrifice, but sometimes there’s simply no other way to achieve one’s legitimate ends. Such was the case with the Algerian independence movement spearheaded by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) from 1954 through 1962 and documented in hot-blooded detail in Rachid Bouchareb’s fictionalized account of the struggle, Outside the Law. While spanning nearly four decades of 20th-century history and focusing on the actions of three brothers of various levels of revolutionary commitment, Bouchareb’s film, at least initially, seems to have the makings of a conventionally plotted epic too tastefully executed to bring home the urgency of past events to the historically distanced viewer.
Certainly the opening sequence in which local Algerian officials invoke the Code de L’Indigénat to dispossess the film’s central family of their ancestral land indulges in a bald sentimentality that threatens to turn historical incident into comforting bathos. As the patriarch belts out his futile plea, “This land was my father’s…I was born here,” the film establishes the sentimental tendency to which Bouchareb occasionally has recourse throughout his movie. Similarly, the second scene, set 20 years later and depicting the May 8th 1945 Sétif massacre in which the police opened fire on Algerian nationalist marchers, feels both too neatly choreographed and too reliant on the deaths of several characters we don’t know much about for sympathetic response to be effective.
But by the time the film jumps ahead to that fateful year of 1954, in which the FLN was born, and Bouchareb establishes the three brothers in their relation to that organization, the director seems to have moved away from the unimaginative filmmaking of the earlier sequences and, while his plotting remains somewhat schematic, he makes up for it by introducing ruddy action sequences, a wealth of historical detail, and a complex examination of the moral costs of revolution. This last purpose is achieved through the varied responses of the three brothers who take up residence with their aged mother in an Algerian shantytown in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre. While Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), just released from prison for radical activity, has no trouble embracing the more brutal aspects of revolution, his brother Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), a veteran of France’s failed Indochina campaign, believes in the cause, but has difficulty accepting the violence involved and suffers from his revolution-mandated separation from with his young wife and their newborn son. Still, he eventually gives up his vow of nonviolence and, though he vomits afterward, strangles to death an FLN member accused of embezzling, coming to see brutal force as necessary in order to give his son a “better life.” The third brother, Saïd (Jamel Debouze), becomes involved only tangentially. More concerned with running a nightclub and training a young Algerian boxer, he claims to be helping the revolution in his own way by giving some of his proceeds to his brothers and via his prizefighter’s symbolic victories, a subplot that seems more of a distraction to than a fresh perspective on the principal action.
But whenever the film starts to feel too locked in by its plotting, Bouchareb introduces a new element of moral queasiness to upset the easy balance. The counterpart to the FLN’s guerilla activity comes in the person of French secret service agent Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan), who helps establish a new (counter-)terrorist organization, the Red Hand, a group that uses bloody methods similar to those of the FLN to strike fear into the Algerian population. When Abdelkader kidnaps this former Resistance fighter and tries to woo him over to his cause, he tells him that he was on the right side in WWII, but the wrong side now. Faivre counters that, while he’s proud of his Resistance fighting, he believes in the importance of the French empire as a counterbalance to the United States and the Soviet Union. He expresses admiration for Abdelkader, but that doesn’t stop him with pursuing his violent cause with an inhuman intensity.
Everybody’s got their reasons in Outside the Law and, without ever seriously calling into question the legitimacy of the revolutionary project, Bouchareb gives ear to a myriad of conflicting voices. But mostly, as we see, the revolution was right because it was ultimately successful. The film charts an endless cycle of bloody revolutionary activity and even bloodier official repression. (Bouchareb may draw equivalences between the two, but he’s always careful to depict the latter as being more brutal.) Although several French characters opine that Algeria will eventually be granted independence without revolutionary struggle and the media blasts the FLN for disrupting the “peace process,” it’s unclear exactly when and on whose terms this “peace” might occur. The French started the cycle of violence, and while it’s easy to deplore the use of these methods on the part of the Algerians, the film suggests that the only way a true independence could be achieved was through a guerilla style attack on the institutions of empire. Still, if these attacks weren’t ultimately successful, then history would just be coughing up one more example of a useless cycle of violence and the FLN would be have to be saddled with their share of the blame.
Placing his considerable action chops in the service of politico-historical filmmaking, Bouchareb builds scenes of revolutionary activity into sustained, legible chaos that occasionally produces dazzling results. Sometimes these scenes emphasize the bloody messiness of the enterprise, as when three FLN members nearly botch an attempt to strangle a physically imposing leader of the rival (and nonviolent) Algerian National Movement. Other times, they seem downright thrilling. If Bouchareb’s 2006 film, Days of Glory, featured one memorable action set piece (a doomed western-style showdown between WWII French-Arab soldiers and German attackers), Outside the Law offers at least two: an exhilarating, stylized shootout as Abdelkader and Messaoud gun their way out of a French police station after assassinating a detective, and an absurdly elongated melee between the FLN and the cops following a traitorous tip-off. If the former sequence treats violent activity as pure excitement, then the latter is as exhausting as it is rousing, the hail of gunfire continuing long after we might reasonably have expected it to run its course. Bouchareb may confirm the necessity of brutal violence to achieve important ends (his film concludes with stock footage of joyous Algerians celebrating their hard-won independence), but he’s always sensitive to the cost of such heavily compromised actions and the price it exacts not only from its victims, but, in equal measure, from its perpetrators as well.