Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi)
Directed by Rachid Bouchareb
Screenplay by Rachid Bouchareb
Algeria, 2010, 138 mins.
To watch this film is to watch memories burn and historical ghosts speak. Outside the Law is a film that simmers – it is full of stark anger, betrayal, passion, and menace, but it keeps these emotions tight and focused. Though the subject – Algerian independence – and all its associated emotions are broad, this film focuses tightly on one family. It is perhaps worthwhile to contrast Rachid Bouchareb’s film with Algeria’s most well-known cinematic epic, 1966’s The Battle of Algiers.
The Battle of Algiers is expansive in its portrayal of all the different people involved in Algerian independence, but limits itself to Algeria. Outside the Law takes the opposite approach: it limits its portrayal to one Algerian family (and a handful of important antagonists), but follows the family members from Algeria to Vietnam to France, and covers time between 1945 to 1962. The most deeply moving aspect of the story Bouchareb tells us how characters who don’t want to be insurgents – such as Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), who wants nothing more than be a boxing promoter – become reluctant warriors, and then become stalwart nationalists. No one gets ‘swept up’ in the movement – at least, not in this film. Rather than focusing on the war of independence first and characters second, like The Battle of Algiers, Bouchareb begins by building characters and only then uses them to explain the feelings and means behind the Algerian War. This is not to say one film is better than the other – I have nothing but admiration for The Battle of Algiers – merely that they take a different but equally successful approach to a subject so painful and disputed that most lack the courage to approach it.
The main reason behind the success of Bouchareb’s approach is the high calibre of his actors. Bernard Blancan plays Colonel Faivre with menace and self-righteousness reminiscent of Inspector Javart. Sami Bouajila as Abdelkader is every bit Blancan’s equal and provides the film with a sense of moral stature. Roschdy Zem, playing Messaoud, is the very embodiment of divided loyalties, both personal and national. He has as scene early in the film that takes place with the French Forces in Viet Nam that inspires an incredible sense of despair and unfairness. Finally, the aforementioned Jamel Debbouze (as Saïd) is oddly enduring as a criminal, providing the film with something of a flawed everyman.
Outside the Law has caused a great deal of controversy and debate in France. It should. Whilst explaining the Algerian War is beyond the scope of this film – indeed, some will undoubtedly find Outside the Law didactic and triumphalist – it would be fair to say that this film represents a past not yet at peace with itself. Outside the Law will not put the past at peace, but it will provoke a debate, and that, at least, is something.