Winner of Best Film and Director gongs at the French César Awards and nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, this rather remarkable film leads the offerings of the 2008 Alliance Française French Film Festival. Although it certainly won’t be for everyone – it’s not really date-movie material – The Secret of the Grain is sure to be a festival favourite, and hopefully will reach a larger audience when it opens in general release on March 20th.
Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) is in his sixties, and about to be laid off from the shipyard job he has held for many years. He is divorced, but still connected to his large family of children and their families, and lives in the hotel run by his lover and her child Rym (Hafsia Herzi), whom he considers to be his own daughter. His former wife Souad is famous for the fish couscous, which he hopes will provide him with a new direction, although the jealousies and betrayals of his children may be a barrier to his eventual success.
This rather simple story of the daily life of an immigrant family in southern France has an emotional impact that is difficult to define but is powerful nonetheless. Its depiction of relationship breakdown and misplaced loyalty is so realistic it is hard to escape the feeling this is a real family rather than a group of actors, and this sensation is masterfully enhanced by the shooting style that emphasises substance over appearance. The overall effect is almost that of documentary, allowing the story and its twists to attain a sense of gravitas that may not have been otherwise achieved.
Several scenes are overly long, however, and this may be partly due to a desire to avoid editing and thus promote the sensation of being a fly-on-the-wall in real life rather than an audience member at a cinema. That the story could have been moved along a little may be a small quibble, but for audiences who begin to squirm once a film ticks past 120 minutes, the length of this 151 minute epic may affect its overall impact.
The cast, many of whom appear here in their first feature film, are universally excellent, with standout performances from Boufares and particularly Herzi, who is simply wonderful as Rym and was rewarded with the César for Best Young Female Hope. A scene that focusses solely on one of the minor characters particularly stands out, however, with the moment when daughter-in-law Julia (Alice Houri) finally loses all control rather remarkable for its intensity and power. Houri is simply incredible in these moments.
That its themes and ideas are still turning over in my mind several days after viewing this film is the true witness to its strength, and although it isn’t necessarily a fun experience it is worthwhile just the same. Recommended.Rating: