MONSIEUR IBRAHIM (François Dupeyron, 2003)

It is the 1960s, and in a predominantly Jewish district of Paris, Moise—Moses—has just turned sixteen, which means it is finally legal for him to hook up for a bit of bliss with one of the several prostitutes who solicit business on his teeming street, the Rue Bleue. Meanwhile, his home life is lonely and unnurturing; his mother abandoned Moses and her spouse many years ago, and his father, who loves the boy dearly but has scant ability to convey the fact, needs to be reminded of the auspicious occasion. He asks Moses why there is only one candle on the cake that Moses has bought himself. We understand: the boy feels that his life is beginning afresh right now. Unfortunately, his father soon after loses his job, abandons Moses, and annakareninas himself. Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Quran) is not their story. It is about the boy and his surrogate, not biological father, a Turkish Sufi who owns and operates the local grocery store that keeps “Arab”—generous—hours.

Monsieur Ibrahim is, of course, not Arab, but he takes French ignorance and prejudice in his stride. Nobody’s fool, he knows that Moses has been shoplifting from his store, but as a student of the Quran, the wisest book on earth, he works to make ends meet, not to become rich. Moses himself is worth more than whatever profits Ibrahim may be forfeiting at the boy’s quick hands. Indeed, the longtime widower, who is in his seventies, strikes up the friendship of a lifetime with this boy, who reciprocates, first, with fascination for a different culture and, later, with filial allegiance and love. “What does being Jewish mean to you?” the mystic asks the boy, who responds, “That I can’t be something else.” But he can. Monsieur Ibrahim, renaming him Momo, introduces Moses to the wonders of the Quran, transforming him into his own spiritual descendant. When Ibrahim dies, Momo inherits the store. The film ends as Momo sympathetically eyes a young shoplifter as once Monsieur Ibrahim eyed him.

Visually, the film is graceful and lovely, and the odd pair’s motor trip in Turkey is a high point. Reminiscent of the Oscar-winning Madame Rosa (Moshe Mizrahi, 1977), about an elderly Jewish woman, a former prostitute and Holocaust survivor, who befriends an Arab boy, Monsieur Ibrahim was directed by François Dupeyron from a script by himself and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, upon whose novel and play it is based. Indeed, these are autobiographical; Moses is Schmitt. Yet there is a degree of idealization that confers an unreality onto the film’s narrative elements. Everything happens nicely and conveniently. For me, at least, it grates that no part of his being Jewish resonates for Moses in any way. How convenient, therefore, that he is a blank slate that Ibrahim can fill with a different ethnicity, a different faith. Since it is nowhere acknowledged that the Quran is punctuated by hatred of Jews, Moses escapes having to confront the fact and his own ethnic and religious past. It’s more than a wee bit disconcerting how easily Moses accepts becoming Momo. I won’t begin to comment on how unpleasant it is to see Moses and Ibrahim together in a Turkish bath.

This happens: Sometimes I respond to a film entirely differently than almost everyone else. I came to the film expecting a sentimental workout; what I got instead was a cunning little fable masking anti-Jewish hate. It only makes matters worse that Omar Sharif (best actor, Venice; César) plays the title character charmingly. A genuine find, Pierre Boulanger (best actor, Chicago International Film Festival) is also completely winning as the boy. But the relationship between the two characters is odious, not heartening, it seems to me. The plea for a transethnic and transreligious coming together that others have been praising is not the film that I saw. If I’m wrong, things will have to stay that way. I won’t be going back for a second look.

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