Movie Review: The Secret of the Grain (Le grain et le mulet) ’07

Slimane (Boufares) and Rym  rushing back to the salvaged boat on which he plans to open a restaurant. (Pathé Renn Productions)

How the Others (“Les Minorités Visibles”) Live in France

Tunisian-Franco filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche followed up his Cesar-winning 2003’s L’Esquive (Game of Love and Chance) with this crowd-pleaser that swept the Cesars (The Oscars, French style) in 2007.

Secret is by no means a sequel to La Haine(Hate), the first acclaimed and widely available French film to tackle the marginalization of France’s racial and religious minorities. In the latter 1995 feature, a trio of banlieusards (residents of suburbs dominated by towering housing projects) recounts the day following an explosive riot.

Instead of neglected communities clashing with an oppressive police force, Kechiche’s points his lens on the lives of a Maghrebin (North African) family and the the fallout surrounding the father’s decision to open a boat restaurant.

With a digital handheld camera, Kechiche’s continues exploring a cinema-vérité style:Uunflinching close-ups, improvised blow-ups between long-suffering spouses (e.g. Hamid’s Russian wife, Julia), and frequent use of medium shots to offer viewers a firsthand seat at large gatherings.

His Cassavetean focus on the relationship between the Beiji family and the father’s new family with a bar owner and her daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi in her star-making debut) anchors the film with sense of reality that allows for some pointed commentary on French social relations.

People are too passive,” gripes Karima (Farida Benkhetache), the peacemaking daughter of Slimane, the protagonist (Habib Boufares). During a kitchen table debate, she shames her father and husband for allowing themselves to be taking advantage of by French employers who exploit immigrant labor (les sans-papiers) and marginalized minorities, predominantly from former French colonies.

But her father’s struggle to receive bank loans, health certifications, and a place to dock his boat restaurant demonstrate his quiet strength in spite of the adversity and outright racism he has to overcome.

Throughout his bureaucratic headache, his other “daughter” Rym is his greatest aide. She becomes his unofficial spokesperson when dealing with French officials and helps secures the band for the restaurant who will later be accomplices to her delaying tactic in the form of belly dancing.

Donning full belly dancing garb, Rym (Herzi) helps to keep the dream of the family restaurant from going under by distracting customers. (Pathé Renn Productions)

Yet the fundraising dinner proves that the runaround Slimane experiences were not in vain: His possible restaurant actually poses a threat to the more established (i.e. expensive) competitors. In fact, during a fundraising dinner, a rival restaurant owner hisses, “I won’t follow somebody not from here.” Other restaurant owners sitting at the table chime in that they refuse to lower their prices to compete with a restaurant specializing in affordable couscous.

Classic Rating Scale: 8.5/10 – Cult Classic

Side-note: Some may think the film length at two hours and 30 minutes is far too long. They would be wrong. They simply aren’t allowing themselves to be absorbed into a story that Kechiche handles with warm sensitivity in a non-cloying manner.

L’Esquive seems humorless and awkward in comparison with Secret – but then again, that film was about the angst that a banlieue teen feels while falling in and out of love with his school’s drama queen Lydia (Sara Forrestier). A line as stinging and funny as, “Alcohol is nourishing, especially for the French. Give them drinks, they forget their wives. I should know” was completely absent from his previous film. The line is spoken by Lilia (Leila D’Issernio) during another kitchen table discussion about how to distract customers while the family rushes to make the couscous. The last bit actually refers to her over-sharing husband (see Sunday get-together at Souad’s apartment earlier in the film).

Lastly, if you enjoyed that scene (the last picture of this post), pick up the DVD of the film. One of the bonus feature is a 45-minute feature entitled Suer (Sweat). Herzi dances for nearly 40 minutes (for really real). The exhaustion on her face when she finally takes a bow eclipses contestants from the group dance-a-thon of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

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