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Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2004

Finding a father figure in a troubled world

Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Francois Dupeyron
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: French
Opens Nov. 20
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Vive la difference! This slogan could be plastered all over the Rue de Bleu, a narrow Parisian street teeming with what politicians like to call "diversity," in the film "Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran (Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Coran)."

News photo
Pierre Boulanger (left) in "Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran"

The Rue de Bleu is a veritable caldron of various nationalities, religions, occupations.

Racial insults are hurled, then quickly forgotten, and minor acts of discrimination are a fact of life.

In such an environment, being different is a prerequisite -- a state as natural as breathing. Why even bother to talk about it, is the general attitude. And so it seems pretty natural when a 70-year-old Muslim shopkeeper befriends a 13-year-old Jewish boy.

"Monsieur Ibrahim" is set in the 1960s. Times were simpler then, and all the teens in the Rue, regardless of nationality, danced to American numbers like "Why Can't We Live Together."

"Monsieur Ibrahim" opens with a shot of white-polka dots on a green dress, worn by one of the African prostitutes languidly strolling up and down her sidewalk pitch. Around her, life on the Rue de Bleu is bustling as usual and watching it all from the window in his apartment is Momo (Pierre Boulanger), the lonely 13-year-old son of a depressed Jewish papa (Gilbert Melki). Momo takes in the street scenes, and then practices lines in front of the mirror: "Hi. Shall we have a bit of fun? How much?" He has his eye on the girl in the polka-dot dress. Papa keeps him short of cash in the belief that money is to meant to be hoarded, not spent. But Momo is cracking open his piggy bank and putting on a clean white shirt: His time has come.

So, there's enough material in the first 8 minutes of "Monsieur Ibrahim" to call in a team of discrimination lawyers and child-welfare consultants. But really, the point isn't about race, minors having sex, dysfunctional families and the subsequent angry accusations. It's quite simply, about friendship.

Directed by Francois Dupeyron, "Monsieur Ibrahim" brings to the screen one of the most wonderful characters in recent movie history: the 70-year-old Ibrahim (played by Omar Sharif). His grocery shop on the Rue de Bleu has been around for decades, providing the quarter with the basic staples of life, and just like other Islamic shops in Paris, it is dark, dank and narrow. It's also open from 8 in the morning to midnight since, as he later tells Momo: "We Muslims don't rest, not even on Sundays." And yet there's nothing rushed or busy about Monsieur: He sits all day at the register like an elegant, well-bred cat and when he speaks he turns on his seductive charm full-force (we are after all, talking about Omar Sharif). There's no doubt that Monsieur is an incredibly charming and sexy old gent, and when a film starlet (a cameo appearance by Isabelle Adjani) drops in to buy a bottle of water, the very brief exchange is charged with romantic eroticism.

When Ibrahim turns his gaze on Momo, the boy who makes a habit of coming in to his shop for food and pinching a can or two while he's at it, there's nothing there but kindness and a deep understanding. "You can steal from my shop. But don't do it anywhere else because they'll catch you," he says, before dispensing tips on stretching his food francs: "Serve cat food and pretend it's pa^te; revive yesterday's baguette by toasting it over the stove; mix chicory in coffee." Momo does as he's told, and his distracted father never notices the difference. The father's wife had left shortly after Momo was born and he spends his hours at home comparing the flighty Momo unfavorably to the older, more accomplished son Popol (who left with his mother).

Momo never lets on how much this hurts him, and the cat food is a small act of vindication, sealing a kind of pact between him and Monsieur.

When the father finally goes AWOL and the police come by to tell him that he's killed himself in Marseilles, Momo turns to Ibrahim for support. The two rapidly become more like father and son -- much closer than Momo had been with his real father. Ibrahim then treats them both to a road trip to Turkey, his birthplace, spending his life-savings on a sportscar (like the one the film starlet was riding) to do it. Unfortunately, despite the resplendent desert scenery along the way, this last section of the story doesn't quite have the buoyancy of the previous three-quarters.

Away from the Rue de Bleu and his shop, Ibrahim seems a little more stooped and fragile, while Momo casts worried looks at his companion. Fresh-faced Pierre Boulanger's performance matures rapidly in this last segment, and without him actually speaking you see the anxiety of a boy terrified of losing a loved one (again), and at the same time, subconsciously gearing himself to face the loss. "Monsieur Ibrahim" is a coming-of-age story, but like the Monsieur himself, it never gets preachy or sentimental and remains until the end, tinged with mysterious shades.

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