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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

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French films portray the two faces of Islam

Tags: Arts
Tahar Rahim in Free Men

TORONTO — Two radically different sides of Islam are depicted in two French films due to be screened at the 15th annual Cinefranco festival, which runs this year from March 23 to April 1 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King St. W).

Free Men (March 25 at 6:30 p.m.), set in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942, focuses on the imam of a mosque who takes it upon himself to help Jews facing deportation.

The Disintegration (March 28 at 9 p.m.) unfolds in present-day Lille and is a disturbing account of a Muslim extremist who converts a group of young men to his radical creed.

Although fictional, Free Men, directed by Ismael Ferroukhi, is inspired by real events.

Younes (Tahar Rahim), a young, Algerian-born black marketer who survives by his wits, is arrested by the Vichy police and forced to become an informer. The mosque is doling out fake identity certificates to Jews and resistance fighters, but who are the recipients? Younes’ task is to find the answer.

As he loiters on the grounds of the mosque, a serene sanctuary in a bustling city, he meets the imam, a reflective man named Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale), and befriends an Algerian cabaret singer, Salim (Mahmoud Shalaby).

At first Younes is merely a self-interested hustler who has emotionally distanced himself from the Nazi occupation. The profit motive is his only concern. But as he draws closer to the imam and Salim, who holds one of the imam’s certificates, he becomes fully engaged in the struggle against fascism and a member of the French resistance movement.

Free Men, which unfolds against the backdrop of Nazi roundups of Jews, is propelled forward by frenetic bursts of intrigue and suspense. But there are also somnolent moments when the film sputters and loses momentum.

The cast is competent, lending plausibility to an inspiring footnote in wartime Paris in which a decent imam emerges as a quiet hero. The Disintegration, directed by Philippe Faucon and featuring a nearly all-Arab cast, delves into the nether world of partially assimilated North African Arabs who turn to Islamic fundamentalism for succor after being rejected by mainstream French society.

Ali, a forklift operator who lives with his mother and sister in a drab apartment building in a bleak suburb, is mystified why he cannot find a white-collar internship that may brighten his otherwise dim prospects.

Djamel, an older man with a calm and charismatic demeanour, claims the French are racist and won’t give Arabs like Ali a fair chance to improve themselves.

 Context is important. Before Ali comes under Djamel’s influence, he beats up a “Frenchie” for having called an Arab boy a “dirty Arab.”

Racism is a rampant reality in Lille, and Ali is affected by it. The cultural and religious gulf between Arabs and “Frenchies” is not only wide but also deep.

 Having decided he will longer tolerate treatment as a second-class citizen, Ali is eager to listen to Djamel’s incendiary philosophy of jihad. So are his friends, one of whom is a zealous French convert to Islam.

 Djamel defames “infidels,” denounces Israel and praises Muslim fighters in Afghanistan. Ali buys Djamel’s propaganda line and becomes a pious Muslim, but Ali’s brother – a secular person who has a Christian girlfriend and seeks assimilation – accuses Djamel of mixing fact with fiction.

 Rejecting his brother’s critique, Ali plunges deeper into Djamel’s dark universe and joins a plot to bomb a NATO base in Belgium.

 Ably directed and cast, The Disintegration paints a chilling and convincing picture of young Arab men whose minds are twisted in the service of a grotesque ideology.

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