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In the classic "Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob", French policemen, totally ignorant about Jewish traditions, enter a synagogue without wearing yarmulkes. The people they met immediately tap their heads as an injunction to put their hats on. But of course, the cop's hilarious response is to tap their heads in return.
In 'Would I Lie To You?" there's a similar gag that works even better than the synagogue one. Eddie (Richard Anconina), mistaken for a Jew, takes part to a Shabbat ceremony. Ignoring that he mustn't say a word, he starts speaking and is immediately interrupted by humming sounds obviously meaning to 'shut up', to which Eddie replies by making the same sounds. It's not much the humming that is funny but that Eddie would be so clueless about Jewish traditions to believe this could be one. The film is full of these little ethnic misunderstanding touches, another one is when the tailor played by the late Elie Kakou asks Eddie if is he's Ashkenazi (Vuibert sounds like Weber) Eddie says no but then adds to the confusion by saying he's not Sephardic either.
In 2008, Dany Boon made the highest-grossing French film about Northern people, the underlying message was that there weren't as bad as people thought, but there's no preconceived notion to fix in Thomas Gilou's comedy. It's about a Gentile who must pass for a Jew because he has no choice; there was no malice behind it. Eddie is down on his luck, without money, job and goals, and by a twist of fate and a fallen medallion with a David Star, is hired by a veteran clothes manufacturer, Victor Benzakem, played by Richard Bohringer. Eddie learns the tricks of the fashion manufacture business, mostly associated with the Sephardic Jews' community of the 'Sentier' area. His under-boss is a young cocky upstart played by handsome Alain Delon's son Anthony and it looks like he doesn't take Eddie as a serious threat and treat him condescendingly.
But then the film reveals that it's got more ambitions than inspiring laughs. Eddie is befriended by the handsome Dov (Vincet Elbaz), who invites him for the Shabbat, he later meets Ivan (Bruno Solo) who needs his help to translate in English a few romantic lines to a pretty blonde, literally, that her eyes smell like ass, which Eddie tactfully translates as "you're cute". When she says "him too" and Ivan doesn't get the joke, there's no way the laughs of Dov and Eddie aren't genuine and that's the best thing about the film, there is a believable chemistry between these guys. We also meet Serge (Josa Garcia), a talkative wannabe big shot overshadowed by the success of his millionaire of a cousin Patrick (Gilbert Melki). Serge is noisy, obtrusive, but it's his bad luck that wins our sympathy.
There's something that oddly reminds me of movies like "Goodfellas", you discover a whole world, with people, not characters. And there's something appealing in that community. I remember as a kid, my knowledge of Moroccan society was limited to three kinds of people: Arabs and French, and somewhat the Jews were those with a foot in both communities. The way I picture it as a child, Jewish people had European first names and Arabic last names, and although my appreciation rose above this caricature, and I learned that there were also Jews from Algeria (pejoratively called 'Black Feet' by French after their exile from Algeria) and from Tunisia, I think it's a fair representation of what makes the community so fascinating.
The guys in the film are loudmouthed and over-the-top, like Mediterranean people, they have this strange fascination for the exotic beauty, which means the tall, blonde, Scandinavian blonde and they speak some Arabic terms especially when it comes to express full emotions like anger of joy. One of the film's catchphrases is the iconic "Yallaaaaah", which is the equivalent of "let's go' but in the context of the film is more of the exhilaration of the fun and joy to be together. This is a buddy movie, with sex talks, business talks and childish prank. In this guys' world, women tend to play foil roles, Aure Atika is the love interest of the tailor but we can get why she prefers Dov, and Amira Casar plays the beautiful boss' daughter Eddie immediately falls in love with.
And what I loved about the film is that it confronted the Jewish characters to their own religious barriers. The romance could have been forced or cliché if the girl said "I'm angry because you lied to me", but Eddie says "don't tell me you'd have cared about me in the first place, if I wasn't Jewish". The line rang true and justified why Eddie was so eager to move forward and expand the business with Patrick's financial support. And for a movie where the main character is lying, his lies are never questioned or blamed, but there's no cynicism intended.
Indeed, in a business where you can tell that a jacket manufactured in Paris' Chinese quarter is the latest fashion from L.A., a lie is nothing personal. This is why the French title "La Vérite" (the truth) takes its full meaning; the idiom is used to show the sincerity of the speaker. How about when you don't say it? Anyway, the truth is that Gilou's film is one of the funniest French comedies of recent years, from a time where we could make fun of communities with humor, good spirit and open-mindedness, as many actors aren't Jewish, and the gentile is actually played by a Jewish actor.
And if ethnic misunderstanding was such a great source of gags in "The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob", they also served a great fraternal message. The same can be said about "Would I Lie to You?", the 'heir' of the 1973 classic, a both hilarious and gentle comedy (no pun intended).
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