Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (English title: Mr. Ibrahim)
A Film directed by Francois Dupeyron
written by Dupeyron and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, from a novel by Schmitt


The new film from French director Francois Dupeyron, from a script that he and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt adapted from Schmitt's novel Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran) is a sweet, simple coming-of-age story. In defiance of the predictable pitfalls of the genre, this film walks the fine line between honest sentiment and sentimentalism.

An intelligent and carefully-crafted script treatment and outstanding performances by the two leads, Omar Sharif and Pierre Boulanger elevate the material beyond the manipulative, into the realm of the thoughtful and insightful.

American moviegoers have been so bombarded with artificial, emotionally-orchestrated "feel-good" films - especially in the last few decades - that a movie that genuinely celebrates the emotion and affection that can grow up between people is immediately suspect. But Dupeyron's film manages to present its subject matter in such an innocent and straightforward way that it can disarm cynicism and overcome the resistance of our established attitudes towards such genuine expressions of feeling.

The story centers on Moses, known as Momo, the son in a single-parent family headed by his eccentric, neurotic father, living just off the Rue Bleue - a down and out neighborhood that is home to an active red-light district - in 60's Paris. The 16 year-old Momo is a healthy adolescent, with all the impulses and raging hormonal storms such circumstances imply. He is seeking to understand the world in a new way that comes with his journey towards manhood.

Momo's father is a distant, confused figure, clearly battered and overwhelmed by the events of his life. He has retreated into self-absorption and is completely out of touch with Momo's struggle. His mother is out of the picture - apparently since he was very young - and Momo takes her place as housekeeper and cook for his cold and demanding father. His older brother, Paulie, who is also absent from the family circle, is apparently idolized by his father, and constantly held up to Momo as an unreachable benchmark of filial perfection.

But Momo has apparently already developed some of the survival skills he needs. He is able to pursue his own life with a high degree of intelligence and independence, and able to separate his problems from those of his father. The local market where Momo buys his household supplies is run by Monsieur Ibrahim - a man whom his father calls "the Arab," but who is in fact an Anatolian Turk with roots in the "golden crescent" - basically a Persian.

Monsieur Ibrahim is an observant, thoughtful man, whose insight and depth of feeling are the fruits of a long life of hard work and careful study, that is now winding to a close. His deep reliance on his spiritual center is reflected in the original French title in the reference to the "flowers of the Koran." He is not a main-line Muslim, however, but a Sufi, a member of a Muslim sect that rejects dogmatic legalism in favor of direct, ecstatic experience of the transcendent and individual expression and interpretation of religious practice.

Slowly and haltingly the gentle, elderly man and the insecure, lonely teenager begin to form a relationship. Never condescending or overbearing, Ibrahim shows himself to be open and responsive, a good listener to the many questions that trouble his young friend - and Momo has plenty of questions.

He has begun to explore his sexuality with the prostitutes who frequent the Rue Bleue. At the same time he has begun to feel the awakenings of affectionate desire with a young neighbor girl. He embezzles money from the household accounts to pay for his sexual initiation with a sympathetic young prostitute, and with some off-hand advice from Monsieur Ibrahim, learns to drop some of his guardedness and defensiveness enough to be able to begin to form a relationship with his neighbor.

In the face of the emotional aridity and sterility of Momo's upbringing, Monsieur Ibrahim gently sows the seeds of respect, self-worth and affection. As Ibrahim becomes the "good father" that Momo has never had, so Momo becomes the affectionate and devoted son that Ibrahim has missed. The story culminates in a road-trip in Ibrahim's jaunty red convertible across Europe to Ibrahim's home-village in Anatolia.

It is in keeping with the whole tone of the film that the fact that Ibrahim is a Sufi Muslim and Momo is a Jew is of very little consequences. Dupeyron makes the mutual acceptance and tolerance between the two almost an aside, taken for granted between them, rather than making it an emotional and moral pivot of the story. Instead, it is the growth of trust and understanding and the self-knowledge it engenders that remains the focus of the film.

Likewise, one of Momo's contacts among the prostitutes is with the beautiful African, Fatou. The issue of the difference in their skin color is acknowledged but irrelevant. The important thing is that he is an eager, anxious young boy hoping for her acceptance and approval, and she is a kindly, mature woman, both encouraging to and protective of him.

Dupeyron is not trying to preach to us, but rather to explore some of the possibilities of life, and to allow us to wonder how much we can and do realize similar kinds of attachments and connections in our own lives; how relevant or irrelevant such "differences" are for us.

What makes this film both so affecting and so effective, and gives the script its grounding in authentic feeling, is the two lead performances. Omar Sharif does the best work I have ever seen him do. While I've only seen twenty or so roles out of the more than sixty he has played on screen in the past fifty years, I think it is safe to say that he is in many ways at the peak of his powers here.

His performance is measured and profoundly sincere. He breathes life into moments that might have been awkward and contrived if conveyed with less honesty and openness. His sensitive, cautious and respectful interplay with his young co-star evokes a sense of immediacy and truth in the relationship that is what makes the most emotional moments work. He creates a stable and credible energetic counterpoint against which his co-star can work

The young Pierre Boulanger is up to the task of carrying this film. It is Momo's story that is being told, and it is Boulanger who has to express the complex of pressures - both internal and external - and the difficult struggles Momo has to undertake. Boulanger's dignified, self-contained persona, coupled with flashes of impulsive bravery, adolescent vanity and spontaneous humor deftly evoke the combination of confusion, hope and inborn (and , as it turns out, justified) optimism that fuel his character's journey.

In spite of his troubled home-life, Boulanger's Momo is not a victim. He is a survivor - another thing he has in common with Ibrahim. He has learned to make the best of the circumstances that present themselves, to take responsibility for himself rather than counting on others, and to think for himself rather than accepting the judgements of the world.

In spite of the pain of his abandonment, he has managed to intuit that placing blame is irrelevant, and that the important thing is to know what one wants and to reach for it. Ibrahim confirms this for him, providing an outside voice of sanity and affirmation on which Momo can rely without compromising his independence.

The mixture of vulnerability and self-reliance that Momo achieves is a measure of the maturity into which he is moving. Boulanger portrays this transition with such conviction that Momo actually seems to grow up - become taller and more self-assured - before our eyes.

The camera work is very fine - from conveying the cramped locations of the Rue Bleue - where even the streets feel restrictive and oppressively overcrowded - to the vast spaces of Anatolia, and the reaches of sky that open over Momo's head on his trip to the East, the changing moods of the film are carefully captured and augmented by the sense of "opening up" that the increasing expansiveness of the framing of shots conveys. The concluding scenes revisit a familiar landscape, but new camera angles and perspectives reflect the new point of view from which that landscape is being seen.

The soundtrack is one of the great pleasures of the film - an eclectic mix of imported early Rock'n'Roll from America with French pop-songs of the period, jazz, and even the traditional Sufi rhythms encountered in Anatolia, the music reflects the complex interweaving of cultures, times and places that are all part of Momo's experience of the richness of his life. At once surprising and surprisingly appropriate, it adds a lively line of its own to the film.

Dupeyron and his company have put together a fine film, which has been widely honored with prizes including the Caesar (the French equivalent of the Oscar) and the Audience Award at the Venice Film Festival for Best Actor for Sharif as well as a Best Male Performance nod from the Chicago Film Festival for Boulanger and a nomination from the Golden Globe awards as Best Foreign Language Film.

These honors are well-deserved. Dupeyron has managed to create a modest, highly personal film that is uplifting and hopeful without being falsely optimistic or contrived. With enormous support from his cast, he has dared to tell a story that is openly and unabashedly emotional without descending into sentimentalism. That they have captured the moment so tellingly and in a way that leaves such an enduring impression of the characters and their lives is a measure of the quality of their work.

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?