Monsieur Ibrahim (the American distributors have left out the "flowers of the Koran") is from a novel that was made into a play by a popular writer named Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. The French editor's blurb goes like this: "Paris in the 1960s. Momo, a twelve-year- old Jewish boy, befriends the old Arab grocer living on Blue Street. But appearances can be deceptive: Mister Ibrahim is not an Arab, Blue Street is not blue, and maybe the lad is not Jewish..." This is the coming of age tale of a boy who, when his depressed father runs away and throws himself under a train, is adopted by an old "Arab" shopkeeper (actually Turkish) who has become his adoring mentor and solace.
Moïse, nicknamed Momo (Pierre Boulanger), gets laid on his birthday with one of the cutest of the prostitutes who line the street where he lives. He goes back and forth to school and at home fixes dinner for his sad, stingy dad and gets the food from Ibrahim's épicerie down below. Momo's a sweet boy who's full of the joy of life and finds his father's grimness annoying. He gets little revenges like hogging the toilet when dad's laxative is kicking in. The movie is intimate and lovingly textured. Everything happens in the crowded Parisian street. It's summer. Momo puts on a thin white shirt over his undershirt and rehearses his opening to the whore: "Quelle chaleur! C'est combien?" ("What a scorcher! How much do you charge?") The light is beautiful. Pedestrians flow on the narrow sidewalk. The camerawork hugs the scenes, intimate but unobtrusive. Momo has to make his own birthday celebration: he's sixteen in the movie, so it's legal for him to go with one of the ladies. His sexual initiation is sweet too, simple, not saccharine. His father is always comparing him unfavorably with a missing older brother Popol ("Paulie") who was bookish. But Popol didn't have to do the shopping and fix dinner as Momo has to because his mother has left them. Momo doesn't remember Popol. Monsieur Ibrahim says he likes Momo 100 times better than Popol. Later it seems Popol never really existed. . .
It's hard to describe this film - which the 71-year-old Omar Sharif came out of retirement to star in and persuaded François Dupeyron to direct. It's a delicate thing, gossamer light, yet unforgettable. To tell its story is to break a butterfly upon a wheel. As in Manuel Pradal's 1997 Marie Baie des Anges, which also has a classic, mythic quality, its evocation of period is effortless. Both films exist in a Fifties or Sixties time that's all the more pungent because never broadcast -- except through irresistible period music. The little lessons M. Ibrahim teaches Moïse ("I know what is in my Koran") may seem clichéd. The stark and exotic direction the story takes later on in its 85 minutes may seem incongruous after the classic Frenchness of the opening scenes. But the movie conveys its mood and period with a deft simplicity no American director would be capable of. When a New Wave movie scene is shot in the street with Brigitte Bardot (reincarnated a bit incongruously, but vividly, by neo-diva Isabelle Adjani), it's a blissful moment of déja vu.
This film achieves its perfection by not seeming to try, with tossed off gestures: Ibrahim giving Momo cat food to pass off as a terrine de compagne for his dad with stale bread and cheap wine to dilute his Beaujolais so he won't complain about the cost; Momo smashing his piggy bank for the 35 francs to pay the prostitute; a group of men suddenly appearing around Ibrahim at a cafe table in Turkey.
Dad disappears after getting fired, leaving his savings on the table. Momo is undaunted. He plays soccer in the street with his schoolmates, learns to dance outside with the Jewish girl across the way, and continues his life lessons from Monsieur Ibrahim, who senses something wrong.
Ibrahim is grizzled, with bad teeth, but his outlook on life is beautiful. Momo has a singular grace; he seems to float across the screen, a delicate presence. He's pretty, he's cocky but vulnerable; he's light on his feet. When Ibrahim buys him a new pair of shoes, he twirls and flies through the air. The film itself skips along at first, then takes on a real-time slowness.
Ibrahim adopts Momo, buys a red sports car for cash, and drives through Greece and Albania to Turkey and his ancient home, where he leaves Momo by the road to go ahead, crashes the car, and dies in a house stacked full of kilims. These events turn the film toward the feel of a fable, something, perhaps, by some Moroccan novelist writing in singing, biblical French.
Earlier (but at this point in the book) Momo's mother comes looking for him, but he poses as a boy housepainter named Mohammed. He is already playing at being the "Arab" on the street, which is what he becomes, inheriting Ibrahim's store and all his wealth, choosing to live the rest of his life with a gentle irony by Ibrahim's motto, "Slowness [la lenteur] is the key to life."
There may be a little too much "lenteur," but many things make this movie sing: its lightness, the flow of the editing, the beauty of the photography, the charm of Sharif and Boulanger. There's a scene of whirling dervishes toward the end of the two guys' odyssey that's not like anything else you've seen in the movies. The camerawork is simple, handheld, timeless yet evocative of the period; the tones are fresh and saturated. There's an early shot of Momo in a red shirt standing in the window with a flowered curtain that's unforgettable. The color!
Thanks to Omar Sharif for getting this project made. There are moments in Monsieur Ibrahim, especially during the first half hour, that have that blessed rightness shared only by cinematic classics.
Likely to be one of the year's best.
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