Sufficiently gripping and sprawling enough to qualify as epic-scale, and sunny enough despite its subject matter to land a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, “Outside the Law” presents the revolutionary struggle for Algerian independence as if it were a Hollywood action flick spliced with a postwar neo-realist drama spiked with DNA from “The Godfather.”
Crazier still, writer-director Rachid Bouchareb generally pulls off such an unlikely saga.
Like Bouchareb’s “Days of Glory,” which featured North African soldiers working for the French Resistance during World War II, the film spotlights a group of secretly operating political fighters.
His current protagonists — postwar Algerian revolutionaries battling colonial France — may not rank inclusion on the same page as their anti-Nazi predecessors in heroism’s annals, but their stories prove compelling.
The plot involves three brothers whose family, in 1925, is forced by French colonial authorities to vacate its ancestral Algerian home.
After World War II, they reunite near Paris. Each has his own way of embracing his homeland.
Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), who was in jail for his politics, becomes a hard-line voice for Algerian independence and leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN), whose principle of armed struggle he upholds uncompromisingly.
Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), who fought with the French in Indochina, joins Abdelkader’s cause but condemns violence.
Said (Jamel Debbouze), a fight promoter, hopes to serve Algeria by taking his Algerian boxer to victory.
Assassinations, shootouts and near-fratricidal ideological rifts occur. Adversaries include Col. Faivre (Bernard Blancan), who heads the Red Hand, the brutal secret counterterrorist organization.
Bouchareb doesn’t achieve opus status with this ambitious movie or deliver the emotional impact that a story about a family ripped apart by politics should.
Nor does originality pervade every frame. Several scenes appear lifted from “The Godfather.” The realistically depicted political material seems inspired by “The Battle of Algiers” but lacks the insight and intricacy found in that film.
But this is still an absorbing family saga, a stirring actioner and a vital dose of modern Algerian and revolutionary history, presented with a big-screen look and feel.
Bouchareb includes a wealth of historical detail and advances the busy plot smoothly. He stages the action, which includes an extended shootout that you half-think Michael Mann had a hand in, with aplomb.
And while siding with the FLN, he addresses the human consequences of its militancy. When Messaoud tells his mother that his hands have killed, but that he committed violence so his son’s future would be brighter, his mix of moral decay and hope sums things up perfectly.
The three lead actors are outstanding.
Starring Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem, Jamel Debouze, Bernard Blancan
Written and directed by Rachid Bouchareb
Running time 2 hours, 18 minutes