The French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche is that rare thing at the movies these days: an intelligent humanist. In his 2003 feature L’Esquive, which stunned almost everyone by winning Best Picture, Director and Screenplay at the César Awards (France’s equivalent of the Oscars), a group of mostly Arab high schoolers from a low-income Paris housing project stage a production of Pierre de Marivaux’s class-conscious comedy The Game of Love and Chance — only to find, in that 18th-century text, a series of parallels to their own social situation. It was a remarkably original film about the universal power of art, cast with mostly nonprofessional actors and filmed in long, semi-improvised scenes of an often dazzling intensity. But unlike what a Hollywood version of the same story might do, L’Esquive didn’t act surprised that these public-housing youths were actually literate, thoughtful and intelligent (as well as sometimes petty, jealous, flawed) human beings, nor did it feel the need to provide a white interlocutor to ease non-Arab audiences into these “unfamiliar” surroundings.
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Much the same can be said about Kechiche’s latest, The Secret of the Grain, in which a 61-year-old shipyard worker in the port city of Sète is laid off after four decades of service and sets about opening a couscous restaurant aboard the decrepit boat he buys with his severance pay. For Slimane Beiji, played with quiet, solitary force by screen newcomer Habib Boufares, the restaurant is both a folie de grandeur and a final testament — a way, he hopes, to unite the disparate members of his family (including his ex-wife, his four grown children, his current mistress and her daughter) and restore his own bruised dignity. Yet the more Beiji devotes himself to the project, the further it seems to drift out of reach. I’m almost afraid to say how highly I think of The Secret of the Grain (which last year repeated L’Esquive’s César triumph), for there is something so fragile about what Kechiche does that it risks crumbling under the weight of inflated expectations. Like Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (whose sensibilities he recalls), Kechiche favors casual observation over dramatic obviousness — a lively family-dinner scene may go on for close to 20 minutes before we fully realize who all the characters are and how they relate to one another. Never do we feel the hand of the filmmaker forcing us from here to there, telling us how to think or what to feel. Then, gradually, a story of considerable narrative complexity emerges, and by the time The Secret of the Grain reaches its breathtaking final act, our pulses are racing and our hearts are in our throats. (Music Hall)