- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

With France set to ban headscarves and other conspicuous religious trappings in public schools, it’s tempting to see “Monsieur Ibrahim,” the story of a Muslim mystic mentoring a Jewish boy in love and life, as symbolic of religious tolerance in trying times, especially in Paris, where Arab Muslims grow increasingly restive.

But Omar Sharif’s Ibrahim, a grizzled, worldly-wise Turkish grocer with a shop on Paris seedy Rue Bleue, practices an offshoot of Islam Sufism thats easygoing enough to appeal to 16-year-old Moses (Pierre Boulanger), who takes a precocious interest in prostitutes when we first meet him.

The only thing Moses understands about his own religion is that it makes him feel “different” and keeps his father (Gilbert Melki) in a permanent funk of depression and hopelessness.

In other words, these arent your standard-bearing faithful. Theyre the kind of Muslims and Jews who Parisian sophisticates probably wish all Muslims and Jews and, for that matter, Christians were like.

Still, if its a stretch as a fable of spiritual convergence, Francois Dupeyrons “Monsieur Ibrahim,” based on co-screenwriter Eric-Emmanuel Schmitts novel, works beautifully on a simple, human level: Man with pure motives bonds with lonely, neglected boy, offering kinship and imparting wisdom.

Realist in look and new-waveish in tone, “Ibrahim” is a nostalgic confection that seems to take place in the early ‘60s, on the cusp of the rock revolution. Street-smart Moses listens voraciously to English imitations of American R&B; at high volumes on his transistor, much to the annoyance of austere, classically inclined Dad.

The radio is Moses window into imaginary excitements. From his actual window the vantage point from which were introduced to the observant, underchallenged teen Moses keeps tabs on the bustle of the narrow quarters of the Rue Bleue.

A Brigitte Bardot-like character (Isabelle Adjani) and a film crew turn up one afternoon. Pouty and aloof, the diva sends the curiously classy-looking streetwalkers into simpers of envy and gives Moses what must be his first look at his citys glamour.

I should pause here to praise Mr. Dupeyron and cinematographer Remy Chevrin: Their tale-of-two-cities approach is subtle and never overdone. “Ibrahim’s” mise-en-scene is rich and personal in detail from the stock on Ibrahims shelves to how Moses red sweater shows the limits of his wardrobe rotation.

Like the wandering Antoine of “The 400 Blows,” working-class Moses lacks, and obviously longs for, parental attention. With his mother gone its not clear where, or why and the specter of a firstborn son looming over the cramped flat, Moses and his father lead an existence largely free of affection.

The fault is clearly the fathers: He forgets Moses 16th birthday; he stays buried in books while the son aimlessly paces the apartment. He relates to Moses only as a means of domesticity, coldly demanding dinner at workdays end.

Moses is therefore ripe for the companionship of Ibrahim, whos a kind of easily underestimated sage with an eye for social information and human secrets. The great Mr. Sharif, at 71, inhabits him with avuncular gentleness and wry, knowing humor.

For their first few unspoken encounters, he lets Moses steal from his grocery, but eventually Ibrahim takes Moses under his wing, nicknaming him “Momo” and extending the young boys horizons first to the other side of Paris, then across the continent and finally into his native Turkey.

Pierre Boulanger, while capable enough in his first acting role, was likely chosen for his proto-leading-man good looks. Hes an easy sell as boy-toy bait, but when a scene calls for emotional depth, Mr. Boulanger comes up green.

And so he should have. In life as on screen, Omar Sharif would make a splendid mentor.

***

TITLE: “Monsieur Ibrahim”

RATING: R (Sexual content)

CREDITS: Directed by Francois Dupeyron. Produced by Laurent Petin and Michele Petin. Written by Mr. Dupeyron and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, based on Mr. Schmitts novel “Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran.” Cinematography by Remy Chevrin.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes, in French with subtitles.

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/ibrahim

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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