Omar Sharif and Pierre Boulanger in Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (2003)



MONSIEUR IBRRAHIM (Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran)

(director/writer: François Depeyron; screenwriter: based on the book and play ”Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran” by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt; cinematographer: Rémy Chevrin; editor: Dominique Faysse; cast: Omar Sharif (Monsieur Ibrahim), Pierre Boulanger (Momo), Gilbert Melki (Momo’s Father), Isabelle Renauld (Momo’s Mother), Lola Naynmark (Myriam), Anne Suarez (Sylvie), Isabelle Adjani (La Star); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Laurent Pétin/Michèle Pétin; Sony Pictures Classics; 2003-france-in French with English subtitles)

“Hardly challenging.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

François Depeyron’s (“The Officer’s Ward”) Monsieur Ibrahim is a feel-good, sentimental, manipulative, coming of age, buddy film, set in 1963, that is all too familiar and hardly challenging. It’s a cliché story about an elderly Turkish Muslim grocer, Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), who mentors an abandoned teenage Jewish boy named Moses but nicknamed Momo (Pierre Boulanger). He gives him the support and love his depressive father (Gilbert Melik) doesn’t. Momo’s mother abandoned the family long ago supposedly taking with her an older brother Momo never met. The grocer and Momo both live on Rue Bleue, a teeming rundown lower-class neighborhood made up of residents of mixed ethnic backgrounds. The neighborhood has a red-light district, where the 15-year-old after saving up enough money breaks open his piggy bank and passes himself off as 16 to get initiated into manhood by Sylvie (Anne Suarez)–a prostitute with a heart of gold who will act as his surrogate mother.

Momo’s stingy and neglectful dad treats him coldly, berating him for not being like his perfect older brother. The alienated youngster is a loner and when not eyeballing all the prostitutes who hang out on his block he goes on shopping errands for dad, whereby he strikes up an unlikely relationship with the kindly, lonely and spiritual older grocer. The Muslim shopkeeper is a Sufi from the Golden Crescent, called an Arab by the boy’s father, even though he isn’t, because he keeps the shop open from 8 am to midnight for seven days a week. Ibrahim sits on a stool behind the counter of his store content to be reading the Koran, which he claims is all the knowledge he needs to exist.

The philosophical Monsieur Ibrahim overlooks the boy’s shoplifting and engages the boy in a meaningful conversation offering him his wisdom (I’m not sure it’s all kosher, since he counsels the kid he can save money by serving his father cat food as pate–which doesn’t sound like spiritual advice to me!). The boy takes a Sunday walk around Paris with his only friend, lets the generous man buy him a needed pair of shoes, fantasizes he’s in love with a neighborhood red-headed girl (Lola Naymark), and listens to Ibrahim’s advice that he should learn how to smile more–told that the smile itself is reward enough. During one street scene, a movie crew has come to Rue Bleue to shoot a scene with Brigitte Bardot (gloriously played by the ageless Isabelle Adjani) from Godard’s 1963 “Contempt,” where the local prostitutes admiringly say she is so much like them.

When Momo’s father finally abandons him, Ibrahim’s Koran lessons begin to work their magic. It brings about a kinder and more gentle world of tolerance, as seemingly all religions melt into one. Ibrahim adopts Momo and takes him for a picaresque car ride in his shiny new red convertible back to his Turkish homeland. In Greece, he tells him the secret to life is taking things slowly. Now that they are on the road, the loving Sufi dispenses mostly dime-store variety wisdom every time they pass through another country while remaining mysterious about his wife in Turkey.

In these hateful times, where France in particular is experiencing an outbreak in anti-Semitism initiated by the Muslim community, it seems reassuring that not everyone is filled with hate and that a Jew and Muslim can be seen in a loving relationship. How true this is, might be another story. But the message presented is certainly a sincere one and cannot be faulted. What can be faulted is how heavy-handed and contrived the film turned out, hammering home its theme of universal brotherhood without any subtlety –even in the pop music played from the time period, with songs like Timmy Thomas’s ”Why Can’t We Live Together” repeated throughout.

Though the story is slight, the acting is especially good. Newcomer Pierre Boulanger shows no great acting skills, but he makes for a convincing orphan; while the 71-year-old Egyptian Sharif who was a screen star in the ’60s, appearing in such spectaculars as Lawrence Of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Funny Girl, is perfect for this likable raffish part. He’s white-haired, scruffy, unshaven and has a potbelly, but he knows charm and how to make the most out of the tired dialogue by hamming it up in a professional way.

Sharif was feted at the Venice Film Festival with the Golden Lion Award for lifetime achievement — for his 50 years in film.

The film is adapted from the book by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.