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SECRET OF THE GRAIN, THE

SYNOPSIS:
At the French Mediterranean port of Sète, divorced father Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), a tired sixty year old, is about to be retrenched from his tiring shipyard job. What with that and his broken family situation, he feels a failure, sharing life with his mistress Lilia (Leila D'Issernio) and her daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi). He ambitiously takes over a wrecked tug with the aim of setting up his own port-side restaurant, eagerly supported by the enthusiastic Rym, with his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk) doing the cooking - including her speciality, the fish couscous. Opening night, however, brings out the best and worst in all of them.

Review by Louise Keller:
Highly lauded, The Secret of the Grain is an exquisitely intricate cross-cultural characterisation whose overlong running time detracts from its considerable insights. Just as Lucky Miles told a different Australian story, Abedellatif Kechiche's dense and descriptive film is a French story that reflects the changing nature of the cultural divide. A detailed portrait of the trials and tribulations facing an Arab family in France seen through the intimacy of a shaky hand-held camera, Kechiche goes to considerable lengths to showcase all the minutiae that make up everyday living. We are witness to the disappointments, the dreams, the challenges, the family feuds, the jealousies, the forbidden relationships and the unwavering love a young girl has for her stepfather. Patience is required to become involved in the lives of this extended family, but there are rewards, including the vibrant performance of 20 year old newcomer Hafsia Herzi as Rym.

Habib Boufares is impotent in his own life, literally and figuratively. At work (after 35 years of hard labour) he is made redundant, and at home he cannot perform in the bedroom. There's conflict between his first and second wife and resentment among his grown up children. But he has an ally in his young stepdaughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi), who not only supports him in his dreams to open a couscous restaurant, but is the catalyst in making his dream come true. Kechiche's storytelling could be described as leisurely at its most leisurely. Some might argue to the point of being bored. We need to pay strict attention in order to work out who is who and what is happening. Much of the revelation occurs at meal times, when the camera pans from the table to the close-up faces in animated conversation and repast. At times, the constant camera movement is reminiscent of being sea-sick, but things begin to come together when the newly renovated run down boat-turned restaurant comes alive with a slap-up dinner for the town's notables and locals.

Kechiche injects constant tension in the proceedings, although we never recognise it as such because the action and interaction is so smooth. Inevitably all tensions and problems explode at the climactic moment in Habib's life, and the results are surprising. The Secret of the Grain's many awards, including its Best Film, screenplay and actress at the 2008 Cesars will entice many to discover its secrets, although undoubtedly some, like me, will be disappointed.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This is one of the most awarded films to which I just do not respond. With hefty prizes like the Best Film Cesar, a Special Jury Prize as well as the FIPRESCI award at Venice, The Secret of the Grain has accolades in spades. But what the production notes tell us about the story and the themes simply don't materialise on the screen as far as I am concerned.

The tag line says 'It takes will, courage and determination to realise a dream. But most of all it takes family.' But what the film tells me is that the ructions, jealousies and betrayals with the extended family of our central character Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) are not so much healed as exploded by the realisation of his modest but important dream. However, that's not what the film's major flaws are about. Never mind the patchy telling of the story and how he cobbles together the money or how he defeats the French bureaucracy (which we do get to see through the cracks); never mind the fact that he's an unsmiling and dour man with little to make us care for him or his dream; never mind his loud and bickering family.

What's worse for me is the perversely uncinematic style of filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche. For lengthy periods, especially in the first (long) half of the film, we are sharing a meal with the extended family, which Kechiche shoots on hand held camera in ECUs - extreme close ups. We see every piece of couscous inside every mouth ... many times over. There is no great emotional payoff for this endurance test, and it helps to distance me from the film.

The potential tension in the story of Slimane getting his dream begins to bite as he applies for a loan - rather pathetically. But this is abandoned, and we are soon in the midst of renovating the old wreck with help from his stupid young cousins. We are quickly at opening night, not knowing how we got there. The film's internal balance is badly judged; having spent half an hour over the first meal, we are whisked through the more protracted episodes in a hurry. There are some dramatic moments - which have little to do with the story - like the outburst from poor young mum Julia (Alice Houri) whose stupid womanising husband Majid (Mohamed Karaoui) ruins everything for poor old Slimane, not just his marriage.

The abrupt ending, after an overlong belly dance that only serves to show Rym's dedication to her 'stepfather', falls flat for me.

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 0
Unfavourable: 1
Mixed: 1

SECRET OF THE GRAIN, THE (M)
(France, 2007)

La Graine et le mulet

CAST: Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Freda Benkhetache, Bouraouia Marzouk, Alice Houri, Leila D'Issernio, Abelkader Djeloulli, Olivier Loustau, Sabrina Ouzani, Mohamed Karaoui

PRODUCER: Claude Berri

DIRECTOR: Abdellatif Kechiche

SCRIPT: Abdellatif Kechiche

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lubomir Bakchey

EDITOR: Ghalia Lacroix

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Benoit Barouh

RUNNING TIME: 151 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 20, 2008 (Sydney/Melbourne); April 3 (Brisbane, Hobart, Canberra); April 10 (Adelaide, Perth)







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