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A treasure of a film that should be viewed with someone you love.
The acting was superb- esp **Omar Sharif, **Richard Berry, and Claudia Cardinale. Although some of the developments were predictable, Richard Berry (who reminds me a bit of Gabriel Byrne) has a wonderful kindness and deliberateness about him- that permits him to bring freshness to the role. Its an uplifting tale about discovering (in time) the importance of family and of the relationships built over a lifetime- that nourish one's soul.
The cinematography was wonderful. There was great poignancy to the scenes that detailed the daily humiliation of the immigrant (the "different ones" ) at the center of the story- and of rising above those indignities to reach a state of grace. I think that this film will not be seen much in the US which is a shame - given that immigration (and the tensions between assimilation and preservation) are themes that could resonate thoroughly with an American audience.
An undiscovered gem despite some flaws.
And "Rue Paradis" was also the scenery where we laughed and wept with the Zakarians in the first film "Mayrig", at 109 to be precise. They were poor, they were working hard, they were reasonable enough to believe they would never be considered as fully French but they sent their son, Azad, to a private school, so he could achieve this. And when Azad is invited to his friend's party in the same 'Rue Paradis' but many blocks further, walking from 109 to 409 was literally like climbing the social ladder, and having a foretaste of that oh so cherished integration.
This party, told in flashback, involves a baklava; this delicious pastry took half a Sunday for the Zakarians. Azad witnessed how overzealous his parents and aunts were, how exaggeratedly grateful they were over any sign of politeness from French people , they would punctuate their sentences with so many smiles and 'thank you', it betrayed Azad's foreign origins quicker than his name. Azad could also witness the uselessness of these efforts and as sweet as the baklava was, the episode left a sour taste in his memory, like a reverse Proust Madeleine.
During that infamous party, Azad is victim his friends' mockeries, and chants mixing up Armenian with Arabic culture. The last straw comes when the baklava ends up in the mouth of the butler and the chambermaid. Azad could picture the aristocratic mother being instinctively disgusted by the pastry, another blow to the Zakarians who, with all the cinnamon and honey, put all their sweat and heart in it. Azad will tell them that everyone loved the Baklava, naturally. But deep inside, he understood that no matter how hard they'll try, he will be (let alone his parents) forever considered a stranger, from a country with funny-sounding names. Adult Azad (Richard Berry) recalls this infamous episode of life before getting the visit of Alexandre, the kid who invited him, thirty years ago and played by the late Jacques Villeret.
I think there's a reason why this childhood episode was used as a flashback rather than in the first film. "Mayrig" was about the roots of Azad and the attempts to be assimilated. The second is about Azad who has succeeded just too well, becoming Pierre Zakar, a successful playwright waiting for the premiere of his new play "The Signet Ring". The title is referring to the gift he received from his parents that cost their own wedding rings, a symbol of his parent's eternal love and sacrifice.
But in this film, Azad aka Pierre questions his accomplishment, his wife Carole is a controlling socialite who did the best to 'Frenchify' him, thus minimizing the contact with his Armenian roots and of course, family. There's just something in the tone of his narration, whenever he says "Carole" that expresses lassitude, we know he won't take it anymore. And his first rebellious act is to politely decline Alexandre's pathetic request (to get his son a foot in the theater business) in the name of that baklava they snubbed in the past. The film is about a rebuilding process.
During the process, Azad does his best to avoid Carole, he sneaks away from the premiere party, meets a woman (Zabou Breitman) who edits a newspaper in Armenian and spends the night with his father Hagob. This makes rather problematic the following scene where after watching an article on Paris Match, Azad gives a phone call to Hagop that causes him to leave, with a broken heart and a little letter that seems to blame his son for being too 'French' for is fragile heart. Azad doesn't have time to make amends; Hagop dies a few days later. I didn't quite believe Azad would have been so harsh and since we never know what Azad said, that part remains a puzzling mystery.
It is a mystery because Azad is no mystery at that point, his conscience is so clear, his cool detachment that can pass as arrogance, even Carole who's the closest to the villain is disarmed by his confidence. Azad has tried enough to be a good French man and somewhat this cost him the sight, the truth, the real meaning of his life, not to mention, his father's life. And like the tides of the Oriental sea, "Rue Paradis" moves back and between the present and the past, showing the limits of integration when it is done at the expense of your own identity, of your own family.
At the end, where Azad buys his mother a house at the extreme point of Rue Paradis, number 588 because it reminded her of Armenian, is a way to come full circle with his past and go even farther than their hearts would have imagined when they came to France.
The film isn't always as fluid and sensitive as the first and among the many questions left unanswered, there is this disconcerting 90's setting while Azad was supposed to be born in the 10's. It made me wonder if it was a deliberate choice from Verneuil or if didn't get enough budget to make another period drama, the first film wasn't a commercial success. But "588, Rue Paradis" is enjoyable despite these striking flaws, which says a lot about its sensitivity, whose culmination is a finale that seals, once again, the attachment between Azad and "Mayrig", roots to be embraced while they're still present, warning you about a time where they won't.
If the film isn't flawless, it hasn't lost that power of imagery, with the coat metaphor, an emotional ending inviting us to value bonds we have with our own memories, our own childhood, our own identity and of course, our own "Mayrig".
Unfortunately, the treatment of the subject is maudlin, over-the-top sentimental, manipulative and self-serving. Zakar (played by Richard Berry) circulates through the movie spouting pearls-of-wisdom and deep philosophy at each step (his attempt to stage direct is hilariously pedantic). All other characters (except Mom, Dad and future girlfriend) are disposable, and disparagingly portrayed. Zakar's wife (who obviously had an important role in his rise as a playwright, down to the selection of his phony name) is a manipulative shrew only fit to be discarded. A boy who long ago dared to disrespect Zakar reappears as a doddering, sweaty, pathetic fool only to get his comeuppance. Critics who do not appreciate Zakar's plays unconditionally are shown as ridiculous fools.
Zakar's parents are portrayed by Claudia Cardinale and Omar Sharif as veritable saints (although with very poor old age makeup and somewhat absurd "old country" costumes). Berry (a good actor in other movies) plays Zakar with irritating self-assurance bordering on arrogance; he is a saint too except once; some nasty phone remarks to Dad. Would you believe Dad dies before son can apologize?
This movie is the middle section of a three part miniseries. I am not inclined to look for the other parts.