Pras On WorldFilms: LE GRAND VOYAGE

“A tribute to the 97% of Muslims we never hear about in the Western world”
is how French writer/director Ismael Ferroukhi describes his pleasingly
understated road movie. Le Grand Voyage’s premise involves a devout elderly patriarch (Mohamed Majd) forcing his reluctant teenage son Reda (Nicolas Cazalé) to drive them from their home in France to Saudia Arabia on a once-in-a-lifetime religious pilgrimage. No surprises that these mismatched protagonists learn from one another, yet this remains an engaging, compassionate film.

 

Le Grand VoyageImagine driving a rattletrap station wagon from France all the way to Saudi Arabia. Now that’s what we’d call a grand voyage, and that’s what Le Grand Voyagedelivers, an extreme road trip unlike any other you’ve ever witnessed.  The elderly patriarch (Mohamed Majd) of a family of Muslim Moroccans who have resided in France for years has gotten it into his head that this is the perfect year for him to finally make his pilgrimage to the Hajj in Mecca. Because he’s a subscriber to the theory that the journey is the reward, he decides that he must go by land, but since he knows it will be a tough trip, he demands that his 18-year-old son Réda (Nicolas Cazalé) drive him.

Out of filial duty and a sense of adventure, Reda, the young French man, agrees to accompany his elderly Moroccan father on the hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is an obligatory trip for every good Muslim who can afford it. The only catch: the… Out of filial duty and a sense of adventure, Reda, a young French man, agrees to accompany his elderly Moroccan father on the hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is an obligatory trip for every good Muslim who can afford it. The only catch: the journey from France to Saudi Arabia will be by car. Initially, Reda doesn’t understand why his father doesn’t simply take a plane and be done with it. His father responds that the pilgrimage should be as arduous a journey as possible to show the believer’s faith. And, so it proves to be. Along the way the father and son will cross national borders, seas, even continents, but no distance is greater than the one they cross to come to terms with each other.

‘Say what?’ asks the shocked Réda (in French, of course). He’s busy studying for exams and messing around with his girlfriend. Who has time for these silly superstitions? But loyal son that he is, he fills up the tank, and away they go, zooming through the night across France and Italy before entering the Balkans.

There is an almost total lack of communication between Réda and his father, and as the miles roll by, the big question is whether the intensity of the trip will forge a bond between them, a bond that is sorely lacking. At first, things look bleak. Réda, who does all the driving, is exhausted, cranky, and furious when his father refuses to stop for sightseeing, even as they pass Venice. Dad only sees the road ahead and says little other than ‘Keep driving’ and ‘We’ll stop here for the night.’ Sleeping in the car is fine with him.

In the spooky Balkans they find themselves confronting scary roadblocks, jittery soldiers, and an old crone who jumps in their car and wordlessly commands them to take her along to an unspecified destination (they later desert her in Zagreb). In Istanbul they pick up a friendly, fast-talking Turk who offers to come along and act as a guide, but can he be trusted? Réda doesn’t think so.

On and on they go through Jordan and Syria, where Réda suddenly begins to feel the pull of his Islamic roots. France this is not, but by now the duo considers buying a live sheep and putting it in their back seat to eat later to be a fairly mundane occurrence.

The film’s climax in Mecca is fascinating. Filmed during the Hajj, the scenes of multitudes of pilgrims arriving from every direction in flowing white robes are remarkable. Réda and Dad have hooked up with a merry band of Syrians by now, and although Réda doesn’t attend the actual ceremonies, he can now see why the journey has been so important for his father. Perhaps he’s finally growing up.

Nicolas Cazalé is one of France’s finest young actors, intense, expressive and deeply moving in his role. (France gets Cazalé; we get Josh Hartnett and Ashton Kutcher.) This is his film, and he carries it with style. We get to experience not only the incredible sweeping scenery he sees along the way but also his intimate inner conflicts. Le Grand Voyage is a story told on both the largest and smallest scales. It’s fascinating both ways.

Out of filial duty and a sense of adventure, Reda, a young French man, agrees to accompany his elderly Moroccan father on the hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is an obligatory trip for every good Muslim who can afford it. The only catch: the… Out of filial duty and a sense of adventure, Reda, a young French man, agrees to accompany his elderly Moroccan father on the hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is an obligatory trip for every good Muslim who can afford it. The only catch: the journey from France to Saudi Arabia will be by car. Initially, Reda doesn’t understand why his father doesn’t simply take a plane and be done with it. His father responds that the pilgrimage should be as arduous a journey as possible to show the believer’s faith. And, so it proves to be. Along the way the father and son will cross national borders, seas, even continents, but no distance is greater than the one they cross to come to terms with each other.

Running Time: 1 hr. 48 min.

Directed By:Ismael Ferroukhi;  Written By:Ismael Ferroukhi

Nomination/Awards: Best Foreign Language Film  – 2005 BAFTA Awards

The secular Reda and his traditionalist Dad do encounter other people during their arduous trip through Europe and the Middle East: there’s the ghostly old woman they pick up in the Bosnian countryside, and the garrulous Mustapha (Jacky Nercessian), who guides them around Istanbul. Ferroukhi’s focus however remains firmly on the relationship between his two barely-communicating principal characters, showing us the cultural, linguistic and generational divides that separate these family members. “Doesn’t your religion practice forgiveness?” despairs Reda after provoking further paternal disapproval.

“THE FEEL OF A CONTEMPORARY FABLE”   Wisely the director doesn’t provide us with detailed information about the duo’s past experiences, giving Le Grand Voyage the feel of a contemporary fable, whilst the air of mystery is further heightened by the elliptical editing style.  And not only does this well-acted film successfully challenge cultural preconceptions of Islamic belief, but in the climactic scenes amidst the collective fervour of Mecca, it achieves an unexpected emotional intensity. In French and Arabic with English subtitles.

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