Dir. Francois Dupeyron. France, 2003. 94mins.
Screened out of competition at Venice to celebrate Omar Sharif's Golden Lion, Francois Dupeyron's new film isn't the kind of stuff festivals dream of, and looks much better suited for commercial than art house distribution. Based on a short best-selling, auto-biographical novel by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, this sentimental coming-of-age story pretends to deal with major problems such as religious tolerance and ethnic identity but avoids coming to grips with them. Still, given the sympathetic performance of Sharif as an immigrant greengrocer in one of the more disreputable Paris neighbourhoods, and the natural appeal of any story showing a teenager discovering the secrets of life and sex, it may do quite well mostly around the Mediterranean, notwithstanding critical opinion, which is bound to be mild or less.
Moise (Boulanger), better known as Momo, is 13, lives with his father (Melki) in a small flat and spends most of his time alone, watching a colourful collection of hookers flaunting their merchandise on the street below. His mother had left home when he was just a baby, and since then, he has been staying with his embittered, sour-looking father, who whenever is not at work, is trying to discipline his son and banish all joy from his existence.
There is no one to help Momo deal with his budding sexuality and with his troubled family life until he strikes up a strange relationship with Monsieur Ibrahim (Sharif), who has the mini-market across the street. At first Momo looks down on Ibrahim for being a lowly Arab, but then learns that not only that his is a Moslem, not an Arab who furthermore rejects all legalist interpretations of the Koran. More importantly he takes the young boy to his heart and teaches him everything that Momo will need later to make his way in life. When his father one day deserts him, Momo chooses to be adopted by Monsieur Ibrahim and then to accompany him on a long journey back to Turkey and the village he came from.
Falling into the genre of films about ethnic minorities living on the outskirts of French society but jealously preserving an identity of their own, Dupeyron's script puts forward all the right arguments for a better understanding between those often warring communities, though he never attempts to go too deeply into any of the issues raised. Moise may be Jewish but he doesn't know or care much about it and nor does his father.
The cheerful prostitutes downstairs present a crosscut of all the various immigrant waves that have hit the French capital but have little identity of their own, while Ibrahim's wise counsels are more in the spirit of humanist common sense than quotations from his beloved Koran.
As a personal tale, there is much that is touching in Dupeyron's film, but it lacks the necessary dramatic structure. Developments are sudden and arbitrary and none of the characters, not even Ibrahim, are really explored in depth, and the script flies off the handle, particularly towards the end when it turns into a travelogue of sorts before reaching its lachrymose ending.
Luckily Sharif in just the right mood for Monsieur Ibrahim, even when he has to put across platitudes about Arabs keeping their shops open from early morning to midnight, Jews always being depressed, Greece smelling of happiness, Orthodox churches of incense, Catholic churches of candles and mosques of bare feet. With him in charge much can be forgiven and forgotten. A small bonus is a brief cameo by Isabelle Adjani as a blonde-wigged starlet shooting the scene of a film just in front of Ibrahim's shop.
Prod co: ARP, France 3 Cinema, Canal Plus
Int'l sales: ARP
Prods: Michele Halberstadt, Laurent Perin
Scr: Francois Dupeyron from novel by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Cinematography: Remy Chevrin
Ed: Dominique Faysse
Prod des: Katia Wyszkop
Costumes: Catherine Bouchard
Sound: Francois Maurel
Main cast: Omar Sharif, Pierre Boulanger, Glibert Melki, Isabelle Renauld, Isabelle Adjani, Lola Naymark