All in the Tunisian French family

March 13, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

The Secret of the Grain brings audiences into the bosom of an extended clan of first- and second-generation Tunisian French in the Mediterranean port town of Sete. It makes viewers feel, in turn, fond of them and annoyed by them. How bracing it is to see a humanist film that disdains art house conventions or amenities!

This movie comes at you all at once, with a force that's bewildering, engulfing and sometimes claustrophobic. Only at the end, when you catch your breath, do you realize that without even trying, the writer-director, Abdel Kechiche, has wrought a definitive statement on how it feels to live in a subculture.

Sans proper introductions (or any patience for false propriety), Kechiche thrusts us into the plight of Slimane (Habib Boufares), a dockworker in his 60s who gets reprimanded and demoted for taking too much time making boats shipshape. Rather than agree to reduced hours, he decides to refit an abandoned ship and turn it into a restaurant. The house specialty will be seafood couscous, made with mullet fresh off local boats.

Boufares, a nonprofessional actor, imbues Slimane with the rue of hard experience and an ambiguous aura of pride and wisdom - or maybe just a stoic vision of wishful thinking. Slimane hopes to get ahead of his alimony payments, leave an imprint on his town and bequeath a legacy to his welter of sons, daughters and grandchildren. The movie is a parable of patriarchal pride as well as a paradigm of how immigrant groups can accomplish goals without any help from their host culture.

The fish-couscous recipe belongs to Slimane's ex-wife, Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk); that's the first of many complications to shake Slimane's fantasy that working together will unify his friends and family. It humiliates Slimane's longtime girlfriend, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), who owns the small hotel where he lives. Latifa's daughter, a nubile innocent named Rym (Hafsia Herzi), is the biggest cheerleader for Slimane's scheme. Rym proves to be the pivotal character. Closer to Slimane than his biological children, she's willing to do anything to bring him happiness and success.

The movie is extremely smart and funny - at times, tragicomic - about the way families fool themselves into thinking that group warmth and closeness, even when forced, can heal all wounds. Arguments about everything from potty-training to the friction of transplanted Tunisian culture and French mores come to the fore in long, unbroken group scenes. They compel you to get your bearings as any outsider would, including the Russian wife of one of Slimane's sons, a notorious womanizer and more-or-less absentee father.

Writer-director Kechiche both exploits and indulges his skill at capturing the ebb and flow of intimate talk, with the facial punctuations of smiles and grimaces and the expressive intersections and collisions of talk with body language. You may find yourself tuning out and then back into several of the conversations.

The film's long-windedness pays off in the final 45 minutes, when Slimane stages a dinner party for his town's movers and shakers to prove his idea's viability. The tension cements his family's unity and aggravates its rifts, most spectacularly in a howl of pain from his Russian daughter-in-law. And Rym, desperately trying to keep the night afloat, comes into her own with a sustained explosion of sensuality that will leave you happily sated or stomping your feet.

Herzi enacts Rym's emergence in an orgiastic choreographic explosion that makes one thing clear: Whether or not Slimane's restaurant becomes a going concern, with Herzi an international star is born.

Secret of the Grain *** (3 STARS)

(IFC Films) Starring Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Farida Benkhetache. Directed by Abdel Kechiche. Unrated. Time 151 minutes. In French with English subtitles.

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