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SECRET OF THE GRAIN, THE (LA GRAINE ET LE MULET) (director/writer: Abdellatif Kechiche; cinematographer: Lubomir Bakchev; editors: Ghalya Lacroix/Camille Toubkis; cast: Habib Boufares (Slimane Beji), Hafsia Herzi (Rym), Faridah Benkhetache (Karima), Sabrina Ouazani (Olfa), Abdelhamid Aktouche (Hamid), Bouraouïa Marzouk (Souad), Hatika Karaoui (Latifa), Alice Houri (Julia), Sami Zitouni(Majid), Mohamed Benabdeslem(Riadh), Leila D’Issernio(Lilia); Runtime: 150; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Claude Berri; IFC Films; 2007-Belgium-in French and Arabic, with English Subtitles)
“A beautifully painted portrait of everyday Arab immigrant life in France among a large dysfunctional family.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

French-Tunisian writer-director-actor Abdellatif Kechiche(“Poetical Refugee“)directs thissprawling ensemble piece, that’s a slow moving but a beautifully painted portrait of everyday Arab immigrant life in France among a large dysfunctional family. It’s set among the Arab working class of the Mediterranean port of Sète. It’s seen through the eyes of the subdued and weary divorced family patriarch, the 61-year-old Tunisian immigrant shipworker, Slimane (Habib Boufares). After 35 years at the shipyard (but given credit only for 16 years because for those other years he worked off the books) Slimane’s let go with severance pay and feels like a failure. Wanting to provide something more substantial for his large family, Slimane aspires to use his severance pay to open a couscous restaurant aboard a docked shipwrecked tug he came into possession of through friends that he plans to renovate and have his bitchy ex-wife Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) do the cooking of traditional Arab meals.

Slimane is shown as a tired man burdened with a lifetime of disappointment and trapped in a complex and demanding family situation that the quiet kindly man, deserving of our sympathy, has no idea on how to handle all the drama and stress involved. He has four self-absorbed grown children and a number of grandchildren. The boys, Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem) and Majid (Sami Zitouni), are not too bright, plus Majid is married to an hysterical Russian immigrant named Julia (Alice Houri), who every time we see her goes into a sobbing and shouting rant against her wayward cheating husband. Julia no longer can take her husband’s lies and plans to take their kid and dump him. The crabby married daughters, Olfa (Sabrina Ouazani) and the sharp-tongued cannery worker Karima (Faridah Benkhetache), are also no bargains. Slimane dwells in the portside hotel of his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), where the prideful man keeps his own room to show his independence. He has a fatherly relationship with his mistress’ busty, talented and outspoken daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi), who is devoted to her stepfather and runs interference for him with the French bureaucrats as he manuevers to start his restaurant.

There are two long set-pieces that seem spontaneous and highlight all the domestic squabbles and the uphill fight Slimane is facing to leave his children and grandchildren a valuable legacy in their new country, as he struggles to open his dream restaurant. At the Sunday family meal in his wife’s place, not attended by Slimane, Souad again astounds the family with her ability to cook a heavenly fish couscous that everyone savors and she basks in the praise. All during the meal the guests keep chatting, saying nasty things about others, gorging themselves like pigs and nervously moving about. The second set piece is on the renovated boat, where a 100 of the power-brokers in the city, who are needed to get Slimane a loan, authorization, dock space and a health permit to operate, are invited to experience the restaurant’s specialty of mullet fish couscous and thereby be swayed into getting the restaurant off the ground. This noisy gathering has a little of everything, including a look at the best and worst sides of the family, a provocative take on the French attitude toward Arab immigrant entrepreneurs, heavy family melodrama, a lot of drinking, a belly-dance that goes on and on (courtesy of Rym), traditional Arab music (courtesy of Latifa’s elderly hotel guests), and an inexcusable foul-up that leads to tragedy (proving that the family’s most resilient figure, Slimane, turns out to be the most fragile). These set-pieces are engrossing, insightful and provocative, but are somewhat stunted by an abrupt ending that leaves things hanging without a satisfactory resolution and without delivering the expected payoff.

The film was justifiably much admired by the critics in France, and had two marvelous impactful performances by Boufares and Herzi. It had a John Cassavetes improv feel to it, as it keenly, with first-hand knowledge, explores Arab immigrant culture and how the immigrants deal with their new countrymen and how the French look upon the immigrants.There’s a disturbing quality about the film that seems to rightfully fit the mood it was trying to convey about life being more messy than uplifting. Though at all times Kechiche treats his Arab characters with great dignity and affection–even when they’re bitchy or screw-up. The pic has a gripping force that might leave the viewer knowing more now about second-generation immigrants and how they deal with such things as cultural assimilation and life in their adopted country. There are many remarkable things about this film that allows us to feel how tense things can be for Arab immigrants in a new Western country, something that not many films can capture in the same convincing manner.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”