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Tunisian born French director Abdellatif Kechiche's third detail Secret of the Grain is dedicated to his father whose silence after a long day of difficult work reflects the demeanor of the film's lead protagonist, Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), a Tunisian immigrant who has been laid off from his job in the shipyards after thirty five years. Champion of greatest picture, director, screen enjoy and actress awards at the 2008 Cesar Awards, the movie is not a Loach-type work of social consciousness but a rich, varied, multi-layered family drama that is universal in its appeal. Although the English game of the movie suggests there is some secret held by the grain, the only secret in Secret of the Grain is how Kechiche manages to seamlessly weld together into a cohesive entire such disparate elements as the traditions of nice cooking, the issues immigrants confront when dealing with white authority, and the desire to leave a legacy to your children.Set in the French coastal village of Séte on the Mediterranean, the grain in the game refers to couscous, a diet staple of Tunisian immigrants and a dish that Slimane hopes to test to turn a dilapidated old boat into a profitable restaurant with his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk) doing the cooking. Shot with a hand-held camera that bobs and weaves through long takes of eating, animated dinner conversations, and emotional family disputes, the 151-minute Secret of the Grain has the authenticity you would expect if you accidentally stumbled into a Greek restaurant where an animated family dinner was taking place. In a stage at one of the two family dinners that take up half of the film, the length and tons of facial close-ups of folks chewing, laughing, and talking in multi-cultural accents is staggering.The centerpiece of the movie is Slimane and his guild consisting of his two sons, five daughters, grandchildren, his ex-wife Souad, his lover Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), and her fiery twenty-year-old daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi) who adores Slimane and whose energy and business acumen is the catalyst for his dangerous venture. Slimane, a boy of sixty-one whose periods of silence stand in sharp contrast to the loquaciousness of his family, lives in a modest room in a weather-beaten hotel run by Latifa. A generous man, Slimane collects fish from his fisherman mates and delivers them every week to Souad, his older daughter Karima (Faridah Benkhetache); and Latifa.The first hour delves into mundane family matters. When Slimane visits his eldest daughter Karima (Farida Benkhetache) to deliver some fish, Karima's anger at her three year-old daughter who refuses the potty dominates the conversation which continues for almost ten mins interspersed with comments about the decline of the shipping industry. Another extended domestic scenes revolve around the escapades of Slimane's irresponsible son Majid (Sami Zitouni) whose extra-marital affairs threaten to drive his Russian wife Julia (Alice Houri) out of the family. The concept of starting a restaurant at age sixty-one raises much skepticism in the community and Slimane's plans are considered too thin and too unsupported by economic reality by the bank he asks for a loan.To prove the worth of his idea, however, Slimane invites one hundred town officials, potential investors, mates and family to the boat that he, Rym, and his son Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem) painstakingly renovated. The opening night turns out to be an astonishing tour de force that combines life-affirming exuberance, sensual melody and belly dancing, and an avoidable crisis that leads to heightened family tension and a suspenseful final half hour. Kechiche, a former film and TV actor, has assembled an outstanding ensemble cast with first rate performances, especially from Boufares and Herzi. Though the movie has many discussions about food, it is not a feel-good "food movie" but a complex, deeply intense narrative that elevates one family's private struggles into a drama of epic scope.
I have heard this movie being compared to Eat Drink Boy Woman, which is fair enough, if not slightly deceptive. Sure, there's a related veneration for the art of cooking and how this draws and binds families. But the movie casts a wider net than this may suggest. For me, it strongly resembles the humanistic and naturalistic stories of Robert Guédiguian, particularly La ville est tranquille (The City is Quiet).The actors are largely non-professionals. The test of long takes, including long stretches of dialogue, is very impressive and suggests that some of the script may be improvisational. I liked the chit-chat, the tiny features of everyday life (like toilet-training a child), that movies normally gloss over.The movie has a documentary look and feel and parts are like a fly-on-the-wall at a family gathering. For me, the importance of this is to convey how human this family is, with a rich and warm cultural heritage. In particular, it renders as impotent, irrational fears of Muslim culture.The movie works on multiple lvls because it taps into the universal daily concerns that potentially touch us all in one form or another: prejudice vs immigrants, attitudes towards Islam post 9-11, globalisation, ageism in the workforce, the results of poverty, family breakdown and more. Yet, importantly, the movie is not preachy but merely presents life in a matter-of-fact way.The female performances in the movie are particularly affecting, especially the young Hafsia Herzi testing Rym, the daughter of Slimane's lover, and Leila D'Issernio who plays his Russian daughter-in-law.At 148 minutes, the movie is quite long, though this is not apparent until the final scene, which seems to be prolonged in real-time for a particular effect. On paper, the storyline looks like something we've seen before, but avoids all the clichés we might expect. I loved it.
Abdellatif Kechiche, who is also an actor, stands with Turkish-German director Faith Akim as the preeminent director dealing with diaspora experience in western Europe. He was born in Tunisia but was brought to France at the age of six and grew up in Nice. 'La graine et le mulet,' the title, refers to (mullet) fish couscous (grain) and Kechiche has told he's as stubborn as the mullet. The action is in the southern French port city of Sète. Most of the cast are non-actors.Though marred by a jittery camera in intimate scenes, over-close closeups, and some sequences that are allowed to run too long, 'The Secret of the Grain' is nonetheless a triumph, an emotionally powerful, overwhelmingly rich, epic-feeling tragi-comedy that overflows with unbelievable performances, evokes a host of masters including Jean Renoir and the Italian neorealists, and fairly bursts off the screen with its loving and complex portraits of Magreban society in France and the harsh globe in which it struggles and survives. The main focus for all this is food: two grand meals, one intimate and familial, the another in a projected couscous restaurant on an old boat where mates and family and local officials are all invited to present off cuisine and entertainment in an effort to prove that an old boy at the end of his tether can, with the support of his family and friends, create a go of it in a fresh business, vs all odds. Kechiche and his cast focus not so much on any plot-line arc, though there are dramatic turns of happenings right up to the end, but on the method they work as an ensemble to create every moment come alive. In the somewhat stilted, over-polished and over-sophisticated and often dry globe of French cinema, it's not difficult to see how the rough, irresistible energy of the globe Kechiche brings to the screen here would seem a welcome tonic. And, it has to be admitted, giving the same very gifted Arab director the run of the Césars twice can't support but be soothing to the consciences of the left-liberal intellectuals who tend to dominate the globe of French movie criticism. It doesn't harm that 'Secret' is offered by Pathé and has the imprimatur of the prestigious producer Claude Berri.Kechiche's previous (and second) movie 'L'Esquive' ("The Avoidance"), retitled in English 'Games of Love and Chance' (after the 18th-century playwright Marivaux's work which is central to the plot) which won four Césars, including Greatest Director and Greatest Film, was about the young mixed population of kids of immigrants who live in the ghetto-like suburban Paris 'banlieue.' This fresh storyline is a homage to the "fathers," the generation of Kechicne's parents, who immigrated to France forty or fifty years ago.Hence the protagonist is the sad but determined Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), who as the film starts is said by his boss at the port shipyard workshop that, actually sixty-one, he is no longer "rentable" (profitable), his work is too slow, he doesn't hold up with the schedule on projects. Threatened with no benefits because earlier in his 35 years at the website he was off the ebooks and actually offered only half-time status, he quits. He lives in a room in a tiny hotel run by his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), whose daughter Rhn (Hafsia Herzi) considers Slimane her own dad and defends him vs his mean sons by his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk). He owes her alimony, but brings fish instead. The sons tell he ought to go back to the 'bled,' the old country; they wish to be rid of him.Slimane's eldest son Hamid (Abdelhamid Aktouche) is married to a Russian woman. His family evidently know about his philandering and especially his affair with the deputy mayor's wife--the need to conceal which becomes a plot pivot-point.While Slimane is alone in his tiny hotel room Souad has a large fish couscous dinner with their offspring and their French husbands and children. This sequence is irritating at times for its clamorous, shifting closeups and its cacophonous talk, but at the same time the method this lively, tumultuous gathering in close quarters has been shot is a tour-de-force of complex naturalism. When the sons bring Slimane a dish of the fish couscous, he gets the concept of enlisting his ex-wife to be the cook in a restaurant he might establish in an abandoned ship. Rhm goes with him to the bank and town offices to show the project where they're politely received, but not given the green light. This is where the concept comes to give a grand dinner on the ship to convince everyone Slimane and company can create a go of it. A lot of the second half of the film consists of this dinner.The naturalism of the sequence may be recommended by the fact that Bouraouia Marzouk now did a lot of the cooking for 100 folks for the dinner. The theft of Slimane's Moubylette is a conscious homage to De Sica's 'Bicycle Thief' ('Ladri di biciclette'). 'La graine et le mulet' is a thrilling, amusing, moving, excruciating screen experience that takes Abdellatif Kechiche to a fresh lvl of accomplishment, but the vagaries of his ways will continue to make opponents as well as admirers as he goes along. As Jacques Mandelbaum wrote in 'Le Monde,' 'The Secret of the Grain' "mixes romance and social chronicle, melodrama and comedy, the triviality of the daily and the grandeur of tragedy. A easy family food becomes a classic sequence, a table of old immigrants becomes a Greek chorus, a belly dance a high mission of erotic vibration and dramatic tension." For all its flaws, this film packages a large wallop and brings Adbellatif Kechiche to the brink of greatness.
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