MONSIEUR IBRAHIM

 Directed by Francois Dupeyron. France. 2003.


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In Francois Dupeyron's Monsieur Ibrahim, a Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Film, a weak script does an injustice to the considerable talents of veteran actor Omar Sharif and expressive newcomer Pierre Boulanger. Set in the Rue Bleue section of Paris in 1963, a home to working class Jews and prostitutes, the film celebrates the friendship between Monsieur Ibrahim (Sharif), an elderly Muslim grocer and Momo (Boulanger), a 15-year old Jewish teenager, but the relationship feels contrived and inorganic. Momo's father (Gilbert Melki) is a depressed Holocaust survivor and the boy's only friends are the prostitutes that line the streets outside of his home and Myriam, a freckled redhead Jewish girl who lives in the same building but is not ready for his advances. Momo, however, is incongruously brimming with self-confidence and an upbeat disposition that belies his troubled home life. Underscored by a brassy soundtrack and 60's rock music, he breaks his childhood piggy bank and becomes initiated by a prostitute named Sylvie (Anne Suarez), a buxom blonde whom he tells he is sixteen. 

As the boy's father continues to antagonize his son by comparing him unfavourably to his estranged brother Paulie, the Arab grocer down the street takes on the role of a father substitute. The wise and kindly Ibrahim overlooks Momo's stealing from him and encourages the teenager to read The Koran, his holy book, expounding religious-based epigrams that, despite Sharif's charismatic presence, sound forced and pedantic. We do not learn much about Ibrahim's personal life except that he was once married and is a Sufi, a mystical offshoot of Islam. Seemingly out of character, he shows no compassion for Momo's troubled father, advising the boy to feed his father cat food, pretending it is paté and gives him stale bread to take home for dinner. He also overcharges actress Brigitte Bardot (Isabelle Adjani) in the neighbourhood to make a film to make up for all the things that Momo has stolen. 

When Momo's father abandons him, leaving him a note telling him that he wasn't "cut out to be a father", the boy does not shed a tear and also rejects his mother who comes looking for him after fifteen years. Instead, Ibrahim "adopts" him, buys a brand new red convertible, and takes Momo with him to his homeland in Turkey. The journey becomes a travelogue with scenes of dusty hills that look as if they were lifted from an Abbas Kiarostami film (how they traveled through a closed Albania in 1963 is not explained). When they reach Istanbul, Ibrahim takes the boy to an Orthodox church, a Catholic church, and a Muslim mosque where he walks blindfolded so he can "open his senses" and watches the famous Whirling Dervishes, a mystical dance performed by Muslim priests in a prayer trance to Allah. Sadly, he is not also taken to a Jewish synagogue. 

Although Ibrahim is a Sufi, the only discussion of Sufism is a dictionary reference to an "inner religion that is not legalistic". There is no discussion of why Sufism is unique among Muslim religions, nor is there any dialogue between the two friends about the tenets of each other's faith. Indeed, the film ignores the close connection between Sufi mystical traditions and the Jewish Cabala, and the fact that Turkey was one of the few countries that provided a sanctuary for Jews escaping from Nazi oppression during the 1940s. While Monsieur Ibrahim is not without its charming moments, I found it ultimately unsatisfying and was angered that the boy turns away from his own religion without giving a second thought to his heritage or his father who suffered through the Holocaust. Dupeyron said that he wanted to make a film about tolerance and bringing people together, yet he settles for a sentimentality that fails to enhance our understanding of either religion or forward a reconciliation of two great cultures.

Howard Schumann
 
 
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