The Secret of the Grain (2007)

The Secret of the Grain (2007)
La grain et le mulet ( original French title)
Dir: Abdellatif Kechiche

Slimane and Rym are an unlikely team.

Slimane and Rym are an unlikely team.

So how much do diapers cost? And what will be the cost of diapers for say a 2 year period till a child gets potty trained? And do the diaper manufacturers not ill serve mothers by making them so dry and absorbent that the kids refuse to start appreciating the alternative?And yes they serve as great shock absorbers when kids take a tumble.Calculators are pulled out and the math is done, 7200 Euros for one year, it emerges, a small fortune for struggling immigrants. All this detailed discussion is just one tiny piece from this big film directed by the emerging French auteur Abdellatif Kechiche.

The discussion is happening at a sunday family lunch in the home of a Tunisian immigrant family in a small port city in southern France.Everybody is there, the three daughters, their husbands,children,two brothers and the formidable mother who has prepared her signature dish, fish couscous, except for the father. In a world becoming stubbornly cosmopolitan and westernized the scene of the family eating the couscous noisily, messily and with great relish is heartening. We see the father a little later as his two sons arrive at his squalid hotel room to give him a take away portion.He eats this with a quiet satisfaction. Rym(Hafsia Herzi),who is the young vivacious daughter of the beautiful middle-aged owner of the hotel with whom the father Slimane(Habib Boufares ) is having a relationship, which perhaps divided his family, shares the meal.The film centers around the efforts of an old and out of work Slimane to convert a rusty decrepit boat into a speciality couscous restaurant.In his efforts he will receive extraordinary support from both his families and many friends.

The big fat sunday brunch.

The big fat sunday brunch.

At he heart of the moral dialogue in the film is the profound decency of Slimane, his doggedness, his complete understanding of the compromises involved in being a struggling immigrant and his steadfast adherence to his duty.He knows his limitations and makes his life useful to his family at an old age, in ways that they acknowledge, when the easy thing for them would have been to sideline him from their lives.His daughters adore him and rally around him in his hard times.They clearly have theirs hearts in the right place.We see his first wife walking quite a distance to give a plate of the couscous to a homeless man.It reminded me of the custom in many Indian homes to reserve the first chapatti (indian Bread) for a cow and the last one for stray dogs. As a kid I was terrified of this chore of taking the chapattis to the stray animals but looking back I see it as a custom which built in compassion for animals in our daily life.

The acting which is uniformly superb by the leads Habib Boufares and Hafsia Herzi, as well as the supporting cast, is a collage of neorealist, formalist and melodramatic elements. Rym played the sensational Hefsia Herzi is the real surprise in the film.Her devotion to her mothers old companion, whom she treats with love and respect, and the lengths to which both her character and Ms Herzi go, bring immense joy to the film.Perhaps its her love which provides Slimane with the strength to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant on a boat.

Hefsia Herzi as Rym, an extraordinary young lady.

Hefsia Herzi as Rym, an extraordinary young lady.

In the extraordinarily detailed final sequence we see a performance of very sensuous belly dancing by the nubile Rym, as she tries desperately to hold the attention of the irritated restaurant guests who are tired of waiting for the main dish of couscous.As she performs the musicians who are mostly old men who stay at her mothers hotel, play for her as they would for a professional. This is also an interesting take on how old men look at young women who are obviously sexually attractive, this scene provides a very civilized and dignified answer.

The film has many long and fully fleshed out scenes, all of which are spectacular in themselves but when they are strung together in a film of this length, it begins to wear us down a bit.The film is raw – in content , tone, texture, performances, dialogue,locations and its use of a fluid handheld digital camera format.Inside its rawness it hides pleasures as wholesome and nutritious as the fish couscous that lends the film its title, but I am afraid this film will end up dividing the audiences into those who completely immerse themselves in its voluptuousness and those who wish for a more economical and smooth treatment of this fertile material.Surely the director is aware of the perils of his strategy of not holding back, of showing us exactly what he wants to, and this makes this a very brave film.

Slimane with one of his daughters and grandchild.

Slimane with one of his daughters and grandchild.

The film is set in Sete, a slightly rundown but beautiful port city in southern France, that I used to make business trips to. Watching this film brought back pleasant memories of the Mediterranean sea that provides a constant backdrop to the film.The sea is what both separates and links Europe and Africa, historically the oppressor and the oppressed.

Does Mr Kechiche want to convey this group of immigrants as being the representative samples of the North African immigrants? We do not know. But as an intimate case study it will serve as an important artistic marker in Frances struggle to come to terms with its colonial past and the needs of a modern French society, in a post 9/11 world, to banish symbols of conservative Islamic beliefs such as the headscarf.Cinema cannot offer solutions, just mirrors, and this film is a finely embellished one.

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