A surprise nominee for Best Foreign Film at the 2010 Academy Awards, the Algerian film "Outside the Law" is an accomplished film with an epic sweep. Documenting the long struggle for Algerian independence from French rule, the film covers much historical territory that had yet to be presented in a fictional narrative format. I suppose this is primarily why the film has caused such a stir--including local protestations when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. There is no denying that Algeria suffered at the hands of France, the film makes this point well. But the film tries to humanize the story by focusing on one family (specifically three brothers) who lived through the tumultuous time. While the scope and intentions of the film are on target, the individual story is a tad expected and surprisingly aloof. From a technical perspective, the film looks terrific--but the characters never felt fully realized so much of the film's emotional impact was sadly muted.
Much of the disconnect comes from the narrative structure as time advances abruptly through the decades. Just as you get close to dramatic consequence, the film fast forwards to the next sequence months or even years into the future. At the heart of the story are three brothers--initially a soldier, an activist, and a hustler. The movie starts in their boyhood as their homeland is ripped away from them, but the film soon advances decades to the military occupation and massacre within the city they now reside in. With one brother imprisoned in France, one fighting in Indochina, and one scrambling to get his mother to safety after an act of retribution--events realign themselves for the remaining narrative to occur on French soil. Here, everyone reunites in a working class ghetto. With two of the brothers falling into political terrorism and the other into the criminal underworld, there are plenty of action set pieces that are well executed and exciting. However, the characters are never particularly developed beyond their particular political stance.
So despite all of its great elements, I simply never got emotionally involved with the story. Inevitably, a huge section of the film plays out like a gangster melodrama. It's exciting, with a couple of spectacular gun battles, but without fully realized, three dimensional characters--there was only so much concern I could muster. The film should have been a devastating emotional experience, instead it was a handsome production. I liked "Outside The Law" and Rachid Bouchareb is a talented filmmaker (coincidentally, he used the same three actors playing the same three brothers for the 2006 Oscar nominated Days of Glory). If you are interested in historical action pictures, there is much to recommend this one. I just never connected in the way I wanted to--but it's still worth a look. KGHarris, 7/11.