March brings the Gene Siskel Film Center's 15th Annual European Union Film Festival. This year there are three films with explicit Jewish content: Free Men, Retrace, and Belle Epine.
Free Men (Les Hommes Libres) from France is based on the true story of two Algerian men whose lives intersected briefly during the Holocaust. Born into a prominent Muslim family, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (1868-1954) became rector of the Great Mosque of Paris. Born into a Jewish family, Salim Halali (1920-2005) achieved international renown as a singer.
Unwittingly drawn into their world is a fictional character named "Younes" who survives on the fringes of the Paris Black Market. Caught by the Nazis, Younes is ordered to spy on Ben Ghabrit. "Major Von Raitbor," the commandant, suspects that Ben Ghabrit is using his position at the Mosque to shelter Jews, Communists, and members of the French Resistance. Knowing it is foolish to arrest a religious dignitary without proof, Von Raitbor forces Younes to become his man in the middle.
The trajectory is familiar: Younes is someone who starts the film selfish and cynical, but ends as a genuine hero. He enters the Mosque as an uneducated man who has no use for the faith of his fathers, but once he begins attending prayer services, the former factory worker is surprised to find himself at home there. Ben Ghabrit and Halali both take an interest in this earnest young man, and his fear of the Nazis is soon displaced by a new-found loyalty to both of them.
Even though we know how it will end, what sets Free Men apart is filmmaker Ismael Ferroukhi's love for Maghrebi culture. As Younes learns, we learn too. Halali's music delights our ears and soulful prayers fill our hearts. For hundreds of years this was a culture shared by both the Arabs and the Jews of North Africa. Ferroukhi clearly wants us all to remember what we shared before a new era began at the end of World War II.
Younes is played by Tahar Rahim, the young man who received acting awards all around the world for his breakthrough performance in the highly-praised but very violent French prison film A Prophet (nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 2010 and released here soon after).
Tahar Rahim (left) in Free Men © Pyramide Productions
Ben Ghabrit is played by Michael Lonsdale who has long career combining art house roles (like one of the priests in Of Gods and Men) with multiplex roles (like James Bond villain "Hugo Drax" in Moonraker). His gravitas is this film's anchor.
Arab-Israeli actor Mahmoud Shalaby, handsome and charismatic, plays Halali. This is his second film (the first was Jaffa, shown here in November 2010 as one of the features at the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema), and we are sure to see more of him in future.
Retrace (Visszateres), set primarily in Romania, has some similar elements (once again a young girl is saved from Nazi thugs) but an entirely different feel. After her father's funeral in Sweden (where he has been living for decades), Katherine returns to her hometown in search of answers to long-buried mysteries.
Katherine's companions on this trip are her husband, her daughter, and her sister… or maybe her half-sister… The screenplay is very oblique, and it was never clear to me who Katherine's mother was or, more important, when she died.
Crosscut with Katherine's story is the story of Sandor, the man who helped save Katherine, but stayed in the village after she left. Romania dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989) is expected imminently and everyone is preparing for his arrival.
Filmmaker Judit Elek (born and raised in Budapest) has a distinguished career with many writing and directing credits and several international awards, so I really wanted to like this film, but I'm afraid I wasn't able to make the various pieces of the narrative fit together.
Unfortunately the third film, Dear Prudence (Belle Epine) by Rebecca Slotowski, was not available on screener, so I will have to watch it with you at the Siskel.
Here's the schedule:
Free Men (France) plays on 3/4 and 3/8.
Dear Prudence (France) plays on 3/9 and 3/10.
Retrace (Hungary) plays on 3/16 and 3/17.
The Gene Siskel Film Center is located on State Street (between Lake and Randolph) in the Chicago Loop.
For complete details and advance ticket purchases, visit www.siskelfilmcenter.org.