A staggering masterwork about an extended Arab family living in France—their intimate lives, their buzzing families, the wonderful food, and their hopes and struggles.
Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche
2007 | France | Drama | 154 mins | 1.85:1 | French, Arabic & Russian
NC16 (passed clean) for scene of intimacy and coarse language
Cast: Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Farida Benkhetache
Plot: In southern France, an Arab shipyard worker along with his partner’s daughter pursues his dream of opening a restaurant.
Awards: Won Special Jury Prize, FIPRESCI Prize, Marcello Mastroianni Award, SIGNIS Award – Honourable Mention & Young Cinema Award (Venice)
International Sales: Pathe International
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray)
My first introduction to French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche was (like many folks) through his most talked-about work, Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013), which won the Cannes Palme d’Or. Those who have seen or read about it would know about its infamous lesbian sex scenes that run on forever. But in Blue, Kechiche makes everything count, even the excess. He has a knack of finding the right emotional nuances in the lived experiences of his characters.
Which is why whilst I was watching his earlier film, The Secret of the Grain, I found it sharing a similar artistic nous as Blue. Now, I am very excited to tell you how much I love this astounding film—it is a staggering masterwork, and I would even be on the record to say that it is one of the finest pictures to come out in the 2000s. That’s how much I love The Secret of the Grain and I hope more people will see it.
Running at around 2.5 hours, Kechiche’s film is about an extended Arab family living in Southern France. In short, it is about immigrants living in a foreign land, and instead of centering on a person (one might however say that it does focus on Slimane, the family’s slightly estranged patriarch, but the film is not a character study), The Secret of the Grain captures the lived experiences of a myriad of characters, played with such raw, intimate honesty and authenticity by his mostly non-professional cast.
To be able to fully develop each character’s personality and his or her unique dynamics within the larger family is not just a feat to behold (which is why I described the film as staggering), but to see it play out so effortlessly is one of the joys of cinema. One of the standout performances comes from Hafsia Herzi (at that time a newcomer) who plays the daughter of Slimane’s new partner. She’s a revelation and the beating heart of the film.
Apart from depicting these people’s intimate lives, the buzzing families, the wonderful cuisine (this is quite rightly one of the great films about food), and their hopes and struggles, The Secret of the Grain is also a fascinating treatment on culture and cultural stereotypes, which plays out most markedly in the film’s astonishing ‘third act’. I will leave you to discover and experience how music, food and plot complications all come together in a breathlessly tense yet incredibly beautiful and sensual finale, one that has been confidently prolonged to near excess.