Like “The Battle of Algiers” (1966), “Outside the Law” (2010) tries to offer a balanced view of the 1954-62 war that was fought by Algerian nationalist groups seeking independence from their French occupiers. It turned out to be yet another Vietnam for France–a clumsy, costly and inhumane attempt to cling to colonialism. Unlike the earlier film, “Outside the Law” stays with an Algerian point of view, but atrocities that we see both sides commit are enough to make us conclude that nothing is pure in war–everything is tainted with blood, and everyone operates outside the law. In truth, both sides tortured captives, both sides brutally executed real or perceived enemies, and while Algeria eventually won independence, what is portrayed here is not a history that I can imagine citizens proudly reading a century from now. It was a dirty, messy revolution that included terrorist attacks on French soil.
If you want history and you want answers, “The Battle of Algiers” is still your best bet. If you prefer HBO-style family sagas that focus on personal dramas showcased against a backdrop of revolution, then “Outside the Law” might be to your liking.
Director Rachid Bouchareb quickly gets us to sympathize with the Algerians when in the opening sequence a family is told they have three days to leave their ancestral home, because it now belongs to a “colonizer” who has a piece of paper saying the land belongs to him. That’s 1925, and we then fast-forward to when the boys are grown and living in Paris, where they relocated with their parents after the eviction. Interestingly, what begins as a black sheep story about one brother who’s drawn to the easy-money world of prostitution and fight promotion (Jamel Debbouze, as Said) evolves into a story of three black sheep.
Said’s brother, Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), fought alongside the French in Asia and has seen first-hand how and why the French lost Vietnam. He’s the battle-scarred veteran who seems too world-weary to engage in revolution. But their older brother, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) was involved in incidents at home that stoked his revolutionary fire. A thoughtful man, and an intellectual, Abdelkader philosophizes and plots how to effectively wrest Algeria from France, and tells his war-veteran brother that their movement–the FLN–will grow exponentially. After a failed attempt to address laborers in the workplace, Messaoud dryly observes that there were two of them before the day began, and two, still, at day’s end. Things take a turn, though, when they have a brush with an already established nationalist organization, the MNA, whom Abdelkader thinks has stalled. It’s then that we see the brutality committed by the French mirrored in the actions of Algerians who, instead of joining forces to cast off their occupiers, fight each other in bloody fashion. And no warning shots are fired over any bows. If you’re a perceived enemy, you’re quickly and violently taken care of.
For the first third, I found “Outside the Law” fascinating because we witness characters gradually changing. But once they reach a certain point and there’s no continued moral growth (or decay), what’s left is a repeat of violent acts committed in the name of patriotism and freedom-fighting. What the French do in this film is despicable, but so too is what we see of the Algerians. It’s shameful to see French police attacking a peaceful demonstration of 30,000 pro-FLN Algerians, but when Abdelkader decides to execute a fellow Algerian simply for buying a refrigerator from the French, at his wife’s insistence, it’s just as shameful. “Outside the Law” makes you conscious of the terrible things that people can do in the name of a cause or belief system. It’s ALL wrong, and it’s hard to watch this film without drawing that conclusion.
Ultimately, the common criminal has much in common with the career soldier and the idealistic revolutionary . . . and a government whose actions toward other humans is based on a self-serving policy. That disturbing message comes through loud . . . but it didn’t require 138 minutes for it to become clear. “Outside the Law” is over-long and doesn’t have enough of a narrative arc to sustain it beyond the moral journey that the main characters make. Still, the first third is compelling, and the rest of the film is sustained by action.
Odd, but the video follows the trajectory of the film itself–great for the first third, but then lapsing into inconsistencies that mostly seem to be the result of the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. I noticed some haloing and ghosting on some figures, and plenty of noise in darkened interiors–even several instances of blocking. Colors go from a dull-but-sharp palette in the early going to a soft-looking hazier image. “Outside the Law” is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is a French DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, with a dubbed English option in 2.0 and subtitles in English SDH and French. I haven’t heard the DVD version, but I wasn’t blown away by the sound. In fact, I thought it was a Dolby Digital 5.1 at first. Dialogue is clear, and there’s distribution of effects sound across the speakers, but it’s not a dynamic track. Given the video, I think many people might do well to get the DVD.
There’s not much in the way of bonus features. A typical making-of feature runs just under a half-hour and includes the usual blend of talking heads and clips as the interviewees discuss the historical orientation of the film. After that, the next major feature is a collection of deleted scenes that run about the same length of time, including Abedelkader’s courtroom scene following the riots. Cast interviews occupy another 20 (rather standard) minutes, and director Bouchareb talks about his entry into the subject matter and how he decided to bring it to the screen. A trailer is also included.
In a way, “Outside the Law” and ” The Battle of Algiers” are apples and oranges. This 2010 film personalizes the Algerian revolution in ways that movie-goers have grown accustomed, and the personal drama focus might make it accessible to an entirely new audience. But be warned that the second half devolves into pointless violence . . . or maybe that’s the point.