"The Secret of the Grane": The Secret of Success By Peter van Bueren

in 64th Venice International Film Festival

by Peter van Bueren

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blame It on Voltaire (La Faute à Voltaire) won the Luigi De Laurentiis award at Venice in 2001 for the best first film. Four years later his second film, Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive), won the César (French film award) for best film, best director, best script and best new actress. So, it came as little surprise that his third film, The Secret of the Grane (La graine et le mulet), selected for the competition in Venice, was able to match the high quality of these earlier films. Still, few people have heard about him because his films are not widely distributed, nor would they have predicted that Abdellatif Kechiche became one of the hottest directors on the Lido, winning some non-official awards. Also, Italian critics and readers of the magazine “Ciak” voted for him as the best. After the very positive reactions to The Secret of the Grane, for some at the end it was even more surprising that he only got the Special Jury Prize, shared with I’m not There by Todd Haynes, in an ex aequo decision. This was because the jury was not able to choose between the two (or was completely divided, as some said).

The Secret of the Grane is one of those films from the last few years able to merge the boundaries between documentary and fiction. Some years ago, Krzysztof Kieslowski decided to change from documentary maker into a fiction director because he thought in fiction he could get closer to the truth or reality. Recently, more documentary filmmakers have changed to fiction and vice versa. Last year, Venice winner Zhang Ke Jia added a documentary approach to his fiction film about the same subject (the situation of miners in China) and this year he came back to Venice with a new documentary, which won the award for best documentary in the Horizons section. In Venice more films tried to report, analyze and/or comment about recent developments in the world, but this film by Abdellatif Kechiche gives the closest feeling of a documentary because of its realistic style and the way the amateur actors play their roles. This film opens the possibility of getting inside the lifes of a family of immigrants in a small harbor in the south-east of France.

The 60 year old father Slimane (Habib Boufares) lives separated from the rest of his family, but is still very closely connected with them. Including the people he lives with in a small hotel, everyone in the film seems to be part of one family, with a great diversity of characters in age and stages of life. It takes time for Kechiche to put all the nuances of the relationships on the table, which is the main reason his film is 151 minutes long, but after that the speed accelerates from the moment a more anecdotic ‘plot’ is developed. The father, who knows there is no future in his work, tries to fulfill a new dream and find a new dignity by opening a restaurant on an old ship, with couscous as a special delicacy. In many ways everyone connected with him helps and it seems that, in spite of all his problems and conflicts, Slimane succeeds. But The Secret of the Grane is not a Hollywood movie and in the open ending the future doesn’t look so sunny.

With this superb portrait of one family in one place, Kechiche has directed a deep insight into French-Arab immigrants, or even more so immigrants in general, as can be found everywhere in Europe. The human and emotional atmosphere of the film is helped by the enthusiastic contribution of the actors. The Princess of the cast is the young and inexperienced Hafsia Herzi as the daughter of the woman with whom Slimane has a relationship. She more and more becomes the driving force of the film and deservedly won the acclaimed Marcello Mastroianni Award in Venice for the best new acting talent.

The Secret of the Grane is a small but, at the same time, great film about ordinary people with everyday problems and conflicts in a complex situation that represents what’s taking place in the world today. This is conveyed by a very talented director who combines personal emotions and a concerned affiliation with the represented characters by accurate direction and supreme story telling.