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Review: The Secret of the Grain

Food for thought
By PETER KEOUGH  |  February 19, 2009
3.5 3.5 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for The Secret of the Grain

The Secret of the Grain | Written and Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche | with Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Faridah Benkhetache, Abdelhamid Aktouche, Bouraouïa Marzouk , Sami Zitouni, Hatika Karaoui, and Alice Houri | IFC Films | French + Arabic | 154 minutes
I was ready to bail on Abdellatif Kechiche's La graine et le mulet after about a half an hour of drawn-out, naturalistic scenes of strident family squabbles and nagging women. I'm glad I persisted, though, because the seemingly aimless miseries of its hardscrabble cast of Arab immigrants in the decrepit French Mediterranean seaport of Sète, recorded with the handheld jitteriness of a Frederick Wiseman film, coalesces over two and a half hours into a dark and hilarious parable of human absurdity. 

In fact, the nagging doesn't start until after an opening interlude that epitomizes many of the problems the women are up in arms about. Majid (Sami Zitouni), a guide on a tour boat, describes to the sightseers on board the rusty highpoints of the harbor, relics of the fishing, cargo, and ship-repair industries that once were. A well-dressed woman catches his attention. Majid (who, we learn later, has a wife and kid) drops his megaphone and follows the woman below decks, where they engage in rough sex. "Hurt me!" she cries as he smacks her buttocks.

Economic depression, exploitation of the working man by a decadent upper class, the breakdown of family values — all too familiar themes these days. Slimane (Habib Boufares), Majid's laconic, long-suffering father and the would-be paterfamilias of an extended and currently fractious brood, struggles to adjust. Having lost his job at the boatyard, he's in exile from his family, living in a tiny room over the lively bar owned by his girlfriend, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui). He's munching on the fish couscous his ex-wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), is famous for, a dish brought over in a care package by two of his sons, leftovers from a testy family gathering from which he was excluded. He recalls that a derelict ship is up for sale. Could he finagle a loan, buy the boat, and turn it into a restaurant featuring the ex's specialty?

At first the plan goes well, despite the financial problems and resistance from the snooty city bureaucracy. But everyone helps out, especially resourceful Rym (Hafsia Herzi), Latifa's daughter, a chubby Lolita whose talents range from pitching the project to the bank to entertaining customers with her belly dancing. Even the goofy, superannuated traditional musicians who are Slimane's noisy neighbors, a kind of Greek chorus for the film, offer their services. The frayed ends of the disintegrating family seem about to come together again, with the battered, abandoned ship serving as the ark that saves the day.

So, the usual happy ending with resolving platitudes, right? Maybe if there's a Hollywood remake from Touchstone Studios. Kechiche has other fish to fry. As the cinéma-vérité style might suggest, he aspires to truth, complexity, irony, and maybe tragedy. It's the only way he can be fair to characters created with such humanity and loving detail.

All of these ingredients come together in a climax that's like Big Night by way of the myth of Sisyphus and with Buster Keaton from A Funny Thing Happenedon the Wayto theForum tossed in. A sublimely orchestrated catastrophe, in other words, but even as the menfolk persist in folly, you keep expecting the women to save the day.

  Topics: Reviews , Culture and Lifestyle, Buster Keaton, Family,  More more >
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