The Secret of the Grain
Cast : Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi
Direction : Abdellatif Kechiche
Rating : ****
Echoing the working-class tableaux of Ken Loach and the humanist dramas of the late Claude Berri, who served as producer, The Secret of the Grain consolidates Abdellatif Kechiche’s reputation as a distinctive French filmmaker.
The third feature of the Tunisian-born writer-director (the first two, Blame it on Voltaire and Games of Love and Chance, haven’t been released here) is set in a coastal town in the south of France.
The patriarch of a large Franco-Arab family is retrenched from his job at a shipyard. But instead of following his eldest son’s advice to return to his homeland, the sexagenarian (Boufares) is determined to fulfill his ambition of starting a floating restaurant.
Director Kechiche paints a vivid portrait of a minority immigrant community striving to uphold its culture and traditions. Aided by the cinema-verite-style camerawork, the film sustains an intense mood throughout its two-and-a-half-hour length.
A warm regard for the characters and milieu is palpable, especially in the virtuoso scenes in which the extended family meet for their weekly lunch. There’s the ex-wife renowned for her couscous preparation, several children, in-laws, and grandchildren. They also get together at a gala dinner hosted for the town’s crème de la crème clientele at the newly renovated dockside restaurant.
The finale is long-drawn-out, perhaps. Even so, the viewer doesn’t lose interest in the fate of the old man or his dream enterprise. Interestingly, the only music used is that of an elderly Maghrebi troupe which plays at the trial-run dinner.
Kechiche also coaxes consummate performances from the largely non-professional ensemble cast. Hafsia Herzi is particularly impressive, once even breaking into a sensational belly dance.
The film deservedly snagged several top Cesar awards --- France’s equivalent of the Oscars --- last year. Grab it before it’s too late.