Pras on World Films: THE SCRET OF THE GRAIN (“La Graine et le Mulet”)

Movies about food and family have become a genre unto themselves and, in many cases, sadly clichéd. But there’s a freshness to Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain (a.k.a. La graine et la mulet), the deserving winner of four César awards. Kechiche  (L’Esquive) brings an earnestness and rigor and cultural authenticity to his intergenerational drama, but more importantly, he captures the emotional rhythms of an extended family at its best (love and support) and worst (pettiness and neglect).

Slimane Beiji, the sad, still center of “The Secret of the Grain,” Abdellatif Kechiche’s bustling and brilliant new film, might be described as an accidental patriarch. A stubborn, taciturn immigrant from Tunisia, Slimane (Habib Boufares) has spent 35 years working in the shipyards of Sète, a rough little French port city on the Mediterranean coast. The other members of his large, cantankerous family — his former wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), and their assorted children and grandchildren — live mostly in a battered high-rise housing project.

Slimane, meanwhile, keeps a modest room in the blue-collar hotel run by his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), and her 20-year-old daughter, Rym (the amazing Hafsia Herzi), on whom he dotes as if she were his own. The chief token of his benevolence is the fish Slimane collects from his fisherman buddies and dutifully delivers on his motorbike to the important women in his life: Souad; his older daughter, Karima (Faridah Benkhetache); and Latifa. Their freezers are overflowing with the mullet that is, in Tunisian tradition, served with couscous, the grain of this film’s title. When Souad cooks up a batch to feed various kids, friends and in-laws, she puts aside a serving for Slimane, who eats it in the spartan quarters he shares with a semimetaphorical caged bird. The kids tease their mother that Slimane’s fish-delivering visits and her cooking of couscous and fish for him signify an undying love.

These are the two delicacies—specialties of the house—that send the French-Arab family into ecstasy and encourage recently downsized sixty-one-year-old Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) to open a portside restaurant on a junked ship.

Since Slimane’s hopeful project of leaving the restaurant as a legacy for his children hinges largely on the celebrated cooking of Souad, Latifa is hurt and wary the closer Slimane gets to achieving the dream (it doesn’t help her ego that she’s a bad cook). Rym, on the other hand, gives unconditional support to Slimane, serving as his translator and business associate as they navigate the terrible bureaucratic hurdles endemic to opening a restaurant (Rym also acknowledges the greatness of the food, saying, “When there’s couscous like this, the world disappears”). More family drama comes from the worst-kept-secret of Majid’s philandering (despite having a newborn), which makes an emotional mess of his Russian wife Julia (Alice Houri). The issues converge in the extended climax that is the film’s third act: a test evening for the restaurant that has the city’s movers and shakers—the ones who can make or break the restaurant—impatiently awaiting the couscous and fish they’ve heard so much about.

The richness of “The Secret of the Grain” lies in the close, tireless, enthusiastic attention it pays to the most mundane daily tasks, especially those involving food.operators, among others.  In France, where the movie won four César awards earlier this year, the secret is omitted, and the film is known simply as “La Graine et le Mulet.”

Though the story lightly touches on issues of Arab integration in the notion of struggling to get approval to take an open spot on the coveted quai de la République (the waterfront of the Republic), the film’s engaging textures mostly come back to food and family. Despite many of the actors being non-professionals, the characters are thoroughly believable. Houri has an amazing tear-laced rant about Majid, and Herzi astonishes with a heroic belly-dance, but it’s not only the pyrotechnics that impress: playing a role intended for Kechiche’s real-life father (who passed away before production), Boufares makes Slimane’s quiet determination resonate, especially as it grows quietly fretful. The soul of the picture is the father’s sacrifice for his family, and when the film, as it must, comes to an end after two and a half hours, you won’t be ready; the bond made to this family makes its sudden absence feel downright brutal.

Mr. Kechiche started out as an actor and has established himself, after directing three features (“La Faute à Voltaire” and “L’Esquive” before this one), as one of the most vital and interesting filmmakers working in France today. In “The Secret of the Grain” he immerses us in the hectic, tender, sometimes painful details of work and domesticity. The camera bobs and fidgets in crowded rooms full of noisy people, so that your senses are flooded with the warmth and stickiness of Slimane and Souad’s family circle. The scenes, though they feel improvised, at times almost accidentally recorded, have a syncopated authenticity for which the sturdy old word realism seems inadequate.

Hafsia Herzi, left, and Habib Boufares in “The Secret of the Grain.”

Not many directors would linger so long, for example, over a toilet-training-related battle of wills between a mother and her 2-year-old, and then pause later to observe a discussion of the same subject among a group of adults at a party. But when Mr. Kechiche does just that, you may wonder why so few have bothered before. After all, the messy particulars of child rearing preoccupy every family in every culture and provide an inexhaustible vein of humor, anxiety and contention.

And the richness of “The Secret of the Grain” — the secret, as it were, of its deep and complex flavor — lies in the close, tireless, enthusiastic attention it pays to the most mundane daily tasks, especially those involving food.

The depth of Mr. Kechiche’s humanism and his subtle insights into the political dimensions of ordinary experience link his film to the great works of late-period Neo-Realism, even if his anarchic methods have more in common with those of a post-’60s skeptical realist like Mike Leigh than with the old Italian masters. “The Secret of the Grain” is in some ways the descendant of a movie like “Rocco and His Brothers,” Luchino Visconti’s long, gloriously novelistic 1960 melodrama about a family of migrants that travels from southern Italy to work in the factories of the north.

In the background of “The Secret of the Grain” is a similar migration that began in the 1960s, when men and women like Slimane and Souad left the newly liberated North African French colonies to seek their fortunes in metropolitan France, a country they regarded as both benefactor and oppressor. In the decades since, France has reluctantly claimed them and their children as citizens, even as it has stigmatized and marginalized them, and this mutual ambivalence is the implicit subject of this movie and its unstated context. (Mr. Kechiche was born in Tunis in 1960.)

But as he did in “L’Esquive,” in which the exalted idiom of Classical French literature collided and commingled with the polyglot vernacular of the modern French suburbs, Mr. Kechiche declines to dole out obvious, easily assimilated lessons.

Life is just too complicated, too unpredictable, too hard and too fascinating. Even as Slimane’s story is one of frustration and unfulfilled ambition — after his hours at the shipyard are cut back, he pursues the quixotic dream of converting an abandoned boat into a dockside couscous restaurant — “The Secret of the Grain” bursts with exuberance and irrepressible sensuality. This is mostly thanks to the women in the movie, who through charm, guile and sheer force of will turn the austere fable of their melancholy paterfamilias into a party. It is not that they are naturally carefree but rather that their cares are so tightly woven into their lives that the only practical alternative to despair is an unruly, militant joy.

Karima, Souad and Rym are at once Slimane’s foils — their bodies are as curvy as his is gaunt, while their frank, abundant talk serves as counterpoint to his decorous silence — and the pillars on which he leans for support. They protect his dignity by declining to point out just how much he depends on them, and allowing him to believe that the opposite is true.

The pathos of Slimane’s story (as well as the accomplishment of Mr. Boufares’s performance) arises partly from the understanding that this man, so committed to the idea of his own strength and resilience, is in the end so fragile.

To put it in slightly different terms, you could say that Slimane’s tragedy is that, having worked so hard for so long, he is left with so little. The couscous restaurant represents his last stand, his grand gesture of protest against a hard fate, and its opening night, teetering on the tightrope between triumph and calamity, is Mr. Kechiche’s tour de force.

An entire family chronicle, along with four decades of French social and economic history, is recapitulated as a lavish, hectic dinner, complete with music and belly dancing. It will leave you stunned and sated, having savored an intimate and sumptuous epic of elation and defeat, jealousy and tenderness, life and death, grain and fish.

Written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; director of photography, Lubomir Bakchev; edited by Ghalya Lacroix and Camille Toubkis; produced by Claude Berri; released by IFC Films.

WITH: Habib Boufares (Slimane), Hafsia Herzi (Rym), Faridah Benkhetache (Karima), Abdelhamid Aktouche (Hamid), Bouraouïa Marzouk (Souad), Hatika Karaoui (Latifa) and Alice Houri (Julia).

Title: The Secret of the Grain
Running Time: 151 MinutesStatus: Released
Country: France
Genre: Drama, Family, Foreign

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