Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It's worth discovering 'Secret of the Grain'

The final half hour of "The Secret of the Grain," a film about a Tunisian family living in the French port city of Sete, contains some of the most agonizing footage I've seen. Murder? Hardly. Another form of criminal mayhem? Nope. In this case, the pain and frustration we feel involves nothing more than a pot of grain. Director Abdellatif Kechiche builds this extended finale around a vital ingredient in the preparation of couscous, a dish that comes to symbolize the well-being of an entire family.

The situation involves the trial run of a restaurant to be owned and operated by Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), a divorced husband who lives in a hotel owned by his mistress (Hatika Karaoui) . Throughout the movie, Slimane attempts to relate to his own children and to his lover's daughter (Hafsia Herzi) -- or maybe it's more precise to say that they're constantly trying to relate to him.

A rich and absorbing domestic drama, "Secret of the Grain" deals with family issues, the treatment of Tunisians in France, the infuriating complexities of the French bureaucracy and the bumpy progression of lives in which boundaries frequently collapse. Kechiche has a gift other directors should envy: He's able to re-create the vitality of ordinary life in ways that advance his story and also give the movie an almost palpable appeal. A scene in which Slimane's sons and daughters share a Sunday meal is so full of good-natured humor, you almost wish you could propel yourself into the middle of it.

The story begins when Slimane loses his job at a shipyard and must seek a new means of support. He decides to open a couscous restaurant on an abandoned ship, an ambition that forces him to deal with an absurdly complicated series of regulations. In the end, Slimane decides to renovate the boat on his own. He also hosts a dinner for the town's dignitaries and bankers. This leads to a long scene that's infectiously involving, yet, at the same time, exhausting.

Kechiche's ending may not prove entirely satisfying, but there's too much wonderful work in "The Secret of Grain" to speak ill of the it, particularly when the movie's so full of life -- and what may be the longest belly dance in the history of movies.

"The Secret of Grain" opens Friday at the Starz Denver FilmCenter.

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