First recommendation: See any movie Hafsia Herzi is in. I was completely unfamiliar with her before I saw The Secret of the Grain, but she is riveting in every scene she’s in as the character Rym. If there’s a more stunning, sexy combination of looks, brains, strength, vivacity, sense of right and wrong, emotional depth, and whatever else you could ask for in a person than Rym, I’d like to see her.
And all that was my reaction before her steamiest scene–the climactic scene of the movie–which I didn’t anticipate in the slightest, and which turned out to be simply the most erotic thing I’ve seen in a non-porno movie in memory.
Actually the women in this community–this is a French film about a French-Tunisian immigrant extended family–are impressively strong and dynamic like that in general. They may not have it quite to the degree that Rym has–plus they have some unappealing characteristics like a penchant for unfairly cutting people down behind their back–but there are strong female characters in this movie, women I respect.
OK, so Rym is the number one positive thing I take from this film, but it’s not the only thing. Another is that the more I think about this movie, the more I’m struck by how real all these characters feel.
Just to say the movie’s realistic doesn’t capture it, because that can suggest a lot of things.
For example, it’s not realistic in the sense of a documentary. It’s not a fictional story shot in documentary fashion to put you in mind of that kind of filmmaking and subtly suggest you’re watching non-fiction.
It’s also not realistic in the Gus Van Zant sense of using primarily non-actors in fictional roles. All too often the acting of amateurs is just bad acting rather than being closer to real life than acting. This film doesn’t have any of that kind of awkwardness.
It’s maybe closer to the naturalistic realism of a film like Day Night Day Night, or maybe 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, in that it contains vastly more detail than is needed to tell the story and move the plot along. But there’s still something a little more unnatural about the realism of those films, like when I’m watching them I’m more conscious of the fact that they’re violating mainstream movie conventions than I am that they’re like real life.
But certainly this film has very long scenes that make you conscious of the editing of normal movies, of the way those movies are like speed reading, where you pick out the key words and phrases and ignore everything else and thereby, in theory, get the gist of the material. This is like, no, we’re going to put you in amongst these people, and we’re going to show you everything. We won’t have you infer how they interact by showing you a smattering of highlights we think best conveys that; we’ll let you soak it all in for yourself to come to a better conclusion.
Because some of the scenes are endless. There are meal scenes especially where the family just talks and talks and passes the food around and such, and they just go on and on and on and on and on. Because there’s not a single “point” that’s being conveyed–that so-and-so is mad at so-and-so, or this person feels guilty about this, or this guy and this girl are attracted to each other, or whatever–rather, you’re just being given a chance to experience what these people and this environment are like.
So you either settle in and accept the movie on its own terms, or you’ll quickly lose patience. Because so often, nothing’s going on (or maybe everything’s going on).
It’s a style that, whatever else good or bad you can say about it, by all rights should be a lot more boring than it is.
And the style didn’t wear on me over time either. (This is a two and a half hour subtitled movie.) In fact, it was the first third to a half of the movie that I struggled a bit to stick with, except whenever Rym was in a scene, in which case I was glued to the screen. Rather than my interest then flagging with fatigue, I found myself more engrossed in the last half to two-thirds.
The last hour of the movie felt like maybe fifteen minutes. That’s something you’ll never hear me say about an unconventionally long, subtitled film of this kind of naturalistic, excessively detailed, style.
Yet I’ve still barely touched on what the film is even about.
The protagonist of the film (Habib Boufares) is a 61 year old Tunisian immigrant who has been a shipyard worker in France for decades. He has his hours cut and is soon thereafter laid off.
He lives frugally but not in abject poverty in a rooming house sort of hotel run by a woman and her daughter (the Goddess Rym). They are at times referred to as his wife and step-daughter, but I believe she’s a (full time or some time, I’m not sure) girlfriend. Evidently, though, it’s a long-standing arrangement, as Rym has a daughterly devotion to him.
He retains an important role in the lives of his ex-wife and family–their children, their children’s wives, their grandchildren, etc. He doesn’t come for their traditional Sunday meal of couscous when they all gather in a big group at his ex-wife’s place–he and his ex-wife have a kind of touchy, not great and not terrible, relationship–but he interacts with them all regularly.
So much of the film is a matter of getting to know this family as a group, mostly without him. Then you also see how they individually interact with him, and you see his other life with his girlfriend and Rym (or more often just him and Rym one-to-one.)
One of his sons has a Russian wife that he obsessively cheats on at every opportunity. (Leading to a late scene that again goes on much longer than convention dictates, where she has a kind of breakdown and tantrum about it, which is fascinatingly powerful and uncomfortable to watch.) Another has the comical trait of being unable to help himself from gaping speechless at Rym whenever she’s present. (I know exactly how you feel, Dude.) They’re both sort of dim-witted when you get right down to it I suppose.
The lead character is a taciturn fellow who lets all the excitement and bickering and energy and emotion swirl around him while mostly keeping his own counsel.
He gets the idea to refurbish a boat he picked up cheap and turn it into a Tunisian restaurant. This will be his one big shot to succeed on his own terms, to realize a life dream at this late stage.
Rym adopts the project and leads him through the banks and government bureaucracy to make it happen, his ex-wife agrees to do the cooking (his current girlfriend is known as a weak cook), and most of the rest of his family chips in with physical labor. Some older part time musicians from the community even agree to play for free on opening night to help out a friend. (In one of the unconventionally long but quite entertaining scenes, the musicians sit caf© style on the street chatting with each other and Rym about the new restaurant. Again, they and their mode of speech and the whole atmosphere feels unusually real for a movie.)
The climax of the movie is the opening night of the restaurant, much like in the movie Big Night. And the pace, while still probably slow for some viewers, does indeed pick up.
I thought it was the most effective sequence of the movie. There’s a genuine suspense to it. You don’t know from moment to moment if it’s going to be a triumph or a disaster. If it does all fall apart, you don’t know how it’s going to happen. If someone does save the day, you don’t know who it’s going to be or how they’re going to do it.
For a time it takes on the characteristics of a nightmare. Imagine there’s an item in a house somewhere that you absolutely have to have to stave off disaster. But you only have the vaguest idea where the house is as you set out to look for it. Then it turns out you’ll need a key when you get there, but the location of the key is unknown. You think there’s a small chance it’s in a box, but the box has been transported somewhere unknown. There’s only one person who even might know where the box is, but he’ll be difficult at best to find. Then your car breaks down trying to get to him, and now there’s only a small chance you’ll be able to get it fixed.
In other words, every time you try to take a step toward your goal, you realize there’s something else you need to do first. The steps increase faster than you traverse them, so the goal recedes farther and farther into the distance.
That’s the situation the protagonist finds himself in. Ultimately he’s physically and metaphorically running and running and running, and in dreamlike fashion he’s going nowhere, if not drifting backwards. The mounting frustration and finally despair of it are conveyed expertly.
This is just plain solid filmmaking. I was fully engrossed in that whole sequence of events on the opening night of the restaurant, most definitely including the aforementioned sizzling scene of Rym’s.
I recommend this movie, in fact I think it deserves a strong recommendation. With the caveat, though, that it really doesn’t follow the conventions that most moviegoers have become comfortable with, and if I had to guess, I think if you leave aside movie critics and foreign film buffs and such, a lot more “regular folks” would find this movie dreadfully dull than would enjoy it.
It’s an extraordinary movie, but it’s clearly not for everyone.