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The Secret of the Grain

Movies Reviews Abdel Kechiche
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The Secret of the Grain

Speed RacerRelease Date: Dec. 24Director: Abdel KechicheWriter: Abdel KechicheCinematographer: Lubomir BakchevStarring: Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Farida Benkhetache, Abdelhamid AktoucheStudio Information: Pathé Distribution, 151 mins.
You can read a book at your own pace. Skip a boring chapter or skim the last page; it's up to you. But a movie in a theater controls you. A 151-minute film takes 151 minutes to watch, and there's nothing the audience can do short of leaving. Surprisingly few filmmakers use this unusual aspect of cinema to carry any meaning of its own, but a hallmark of great films is a distinctive use of length. Deciding what to lavish with the camera's gaze, and for how long, is a part of the cinematic art, and the goal is not always to flatter or give comfort to the audience.Speed RacerThe Secret of the Grain is one of the most remarkable films of 2008, in part because it masterfully extends certain sequences not only to let them play out before our eyes but also to invite reflection even as the film is still running. A mainstream producer would have ordered them cut.
It's the story of an elderly Tunisian man living in southern France who is laid off from his job in the shipyard and decides—or is convinced by young members of his family—to open a couscous restaurant on a rundown barge. Rooted in a Maghrebi community in the port town of Sete, the movie traces Slimane's extended family, which is fragmented, like most families, by divorce, age and immigration.
Slimane's path toward restaurant ownership—fraught with so many difficulties that I'm never sure this tired old man has it in him—is exactly the kind of narrative arc that could end with heart-warming triumph and tasty food. But the final stretch, which is stacked high with suspense and sexuality in the form of a sleepy-eyed belly dance, goes on well past the point where we expect it to resolve. It just keeps going. And as it does my expectations begin to shift, my hopes gradually deflate. Can the restaurant succeed? Should it? Who wants it to? At whose expense? For two hours I'd been rooting for the scheme to work, but do these French-born youngsters really have the old man's interests at heart? Or do they just have a different sense of what's possible than a 61-year-old shipyard laborer?
There is plenty of food in the film, but it's never present without the complications of people. One scene at a dinner table is a marvel of chaotic editing; in the melee of banter and consumption, the film doesn't lose its bearings but captures the quick, overlapping voices and gestures that define the gathering of any large, talkative family. Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche shoots in close-up and medium shots and doesn't recoil from the glamourless view of food going into jabbering mouths, because his goal isn't to put a gloss on his own community but to watch it, reveal it, burn for it. And that's how good meals sometimes look.