26 February, 2009

La graine et le mulet (The Secret of the Grain) (2007)

Radically different visions

Gerald Loftus returns with his take on an EFA winner...

The Germans have entitled it Warten auf Couscous, the original title is La graine et le mulet and it is known as The Secret of the Grain to the anglophone world. Yes, couscous does feature prominently in the film, but that is like saying that Gone With the Wind (1938) should have been called She Grows Cotton.

La Graine et le Mulet
(2007) (the couscous in question is the mullet variety, as those who know Tunisia's fish couscous have come to appreciate) is a French film by a Tunisian-born director, Abdelatif Kechiche. French, because it's almost all in French, takes place in Sete, a Mediterranean fishing port, and with a cast almost exclusively composed of hyphenated French, mostly of North African origin.

Kechiche has explored this world before, in La Faute à Voltaire (2000) and L'esquive (2003), both of which garnered awards in European film festivals, as has La graine et le mulet. But here's the thing: in his latest film, there's not a Muslim fundamentalist to be seen. You would be hard-pressed to guess that the Maghrebi families depicted practice any religion - it's just not shown to be a part of their lives.

What we do see are lots of family: extended family, immigrant family, second generation family, mixed marriages, divorces, infidelity, and love. The only skin you'll see is during an extended belly dance at the family restaurant (that's the converted fishing boat you see in the poster). But I would say that certain fundamentalist elements in European Muslim communities will rail against the film, simply for its naturalistic depiction of secular Muslims going about the business of adapting to life in Europe.

For someone who has spent a chunk of his life in North Africa, the film is a joy. The acting is natural, understated at most times, volcanic when the situation calls for emotion. There is humor, pathos, and an uncanny feel for relations among and across France's communities. The film's acting revelation is Hafsia Herzi, under twenty when the film was made in 2005 (it was only released in 2007). If Marion Cotillard recently won a very deserved Golden Globe and Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf, then Hafsia Herzi deserves honours for this, her first film role (she did win the Marcello Mastoianni Prize at the Venice Film Festival).

As the Hollywood Reporter said of Kechiche at Venice, "the director's lack of discipline in failing to yell cut while he's ahead" is really the only serious criticism that can be rendered against this two-and-a-half hour film. In every other respect, it's thumbs up.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus

151 mins. In French, Arabic and Russian.

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