"The Secret of the Grain": Pride and Loyalty By Øyvor Dalan Vik
There’s a captivating freshness to writer-director Abellatif Kechiche’s third feature film, The Secret of the Grain (La graine et le mulet), that overcomes its 151 minutes of running time. A tale of both the ambivalence of family loyalty and of the new Europe, the film tells the story of an Arab family in the south of France, and establishes the Tunis-born Kechiche as a voice of immigrants in Europe, the French equivalent of Fatih Akin, the German director of Turkish descent.
As the sixty-something Arab immigrant to France, Slimane (Habib Boufares), gets laid off after 35 years as a dockworker, the divorced father of six needs to do something to restore his pride. He’s not a man of many words, and it is only later in the film we understand that he has persistently been pondering the idea of opening a restaurant on an abandoned vessel. Not only that, the secret of the title refers to the grain and Slimane’s ex-wife Souad’s (Bouraouia Marzouk) ability to make a far-famed couscous out of it. The thought is that Souad’s couscous will be the restaurant’s specialty, which doesn’t go over well with Slimane’s new lover Latifa (Hatika Karaoui).
The film builds up around two big meals; the first at Souad’s place, a regular Sunday event with everyone but Slimane present; the children, their partners, their children and friends take delight in the traditional couscous, yelling, laughing, sharing intimate details. At the end of the meal Souad makes a plate for her sons to take to Slimane, a gesture that is both thoughtful and an entrapment for the former head of the family regarding his new liaison with Latifa and her daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi). The second meal resembles a battle, prepared for “the others”, meaning the French, at the renovated boat to win the local authorities over after running the gantlet for a variety of permissions and bank loans. The climax leads to an open ending that could hold either bliss or disaster.
Kechiche has an appetite for long close-ups and abundant scenes with overlapping dialogue, which permits the excellent ensemble to build rich characters even of the smaller parts, and take on the full range of human emotions, bringing their audience to laughter and sadness. The cast of The Secret of the Grain includes Hafsia Herzi a discovery as Latifa’s vigorous daughter Rym, Slimane’s ally and the intermediary between the traditional Arab family structure and modern French society.
Though Kechiche’s films haven’t travelled far off the festival circuit yet, he’s definitely a director to look out for.