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

Artificial Eye Film Company
Abdellatif Kechiche/France 2007

Aging ships’ carpenter Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) refuses to cut corners in the work place despite his boss’ orders to “read the schedules” and he’s behind with alimony payments to his ex-wife Karima (Faridah Benkhetache). Despite his efforts to maintain contact, his grown up children are distracted by their own domestic and employment problems. Failing health and loss of status means he can’t make love to his mistress, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), in whose run-down Hotel de l’Orient he rents a room. Slimane is excluded from the Sunday family gatherings for his ex-wife’s fish couscous lunches, and his feckless sons advise him to return to the homeland he left 35 years before.

His only ally seems to be Rym (Hafsia Herzi), Latifa’s strong-minded daughter, who helps him to pursue his dream of opening a floating couscous restaurant. When his severance pay allows him to buy and renovate an old boat, Slimane relies on Rym’s communication skills to navigate the red-tape and prejudice they meet at every turn. Finally, family and community rally round for a make-or-break opening night.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain has been a hit with audiences in France and won “Best Film” at the César awards 2008. According to director Kechiche, this is “an adventure story, one where the narration is closer to that of a tale, with all the digressions, suspensions, etc. that that implies” and it’s clear the strength of the film is in the family and community scenes.

Treating the myth of the immigrant dream with “a certain irony”, the award-winning actor-director has drawn stunning performances from his largely unprofessional cast. The hollow-cheeked Slimane is played with a superb containment that contrasts with the lively frankness of his extended family members. Herzi as Rym is supremely watchable: cool in negotiations with officials, sly in her covert glances at Slimane’s handsome unmarried son, seductive when entertaining diners in the tour-de-force final scene. Her performance deservedly earned the “Special Jury Prize” for Best Actress in the 2007 Venice Film Festival.

The interactive scenes are fascinating for their cultural undercurrents. “Easy on the harissa”, says a French son-in-law coming to terms with Arabic cooking. “They’ll pass anything so long as it’s not a mosque’ comments a member of the local business coterie, fearful of competition from Slimane’s restaurant. Set pieces such as the extended family lunch and the gathering of old cronies outside the Hotel de l’Orient are for the most part shot using close-ups which catch the warts-and-all humanity of the participants and their concerns.

Themes such as the decline of culture through loss of language, racial prejudice in the workplace and the struggle for survival in a society slick with hypocrisy, emerge naturally in conversations where the audience plays the role of eavesdropper. Constant reminders of the sea and a haunting soundtrack of Arabic popular music add lyrical touches, particularly in the shots of the dignified patriarch on his motor scooter alongside the dock delivering fish to his family or with Rym riding pillion.

More harrowing scenes are played out within the confines of cramped domestic settings, such as the flat where a betrayed wife berates her husband or the tiny offices where Rym and Slimane confront a discouraging bank official and a hasty administrator hovering between the supplicants and his secretary.

It is in the final sequence, with the below-deck food crises and the above-deck crush of diners that the film is at its weakest. The director has seemingly set in place all the ingredients for a nail-biting but triumphal conclusion as the town dignitaries arrive in style for the grand opening. In a somewhat overlong final montage, the director stays true to his themes and delivers the ending which was signaled during the course of the narrative. That he does so such a gratuitously drawn-out way has the effect of making the final scenes almost unwatchable.

© 2008 Sheila Cornelius. All rights reserved.

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