With this and Hildago, Omar Sharif reclaims his place as a major star of film — albeit one somewhat removed from his more dashing days in Larwrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. That’s not to say that Mr. Sharif isn’t still rather dashing in a 70-plus sort of way, but he makes no attempt to disguise his age and has settled quite admirably into the role of character-actor emeritus. And the screen is the richer for it, as movie-going right now is a bit richer for the film at hand, Monsieur Ibrahim — or, to give its full title, Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran (which hints at a crucial surprise at movie’s end).
This is a much better film than Hidalgo, affording Sharif a role that doesn’t at all trade on his action/adventure past. Here he plays M. Ibrahim Deneji, a Turkish Muslim (a Sufi, who accepts the Koran more as philosophy than law) who runs a little grocery in the Rue Bleu, a working-class Paris neighborhood in the early 1960s. Among his clientele is Moses (newcomer Pierre Boulanger), a Jewish 16-year-old with a distracted and disapproving father (Gilbert Melki, Apres La Vie), who uses his son as a kind of cook-housekeeper, and constantly compares him negatively to a long-missing brother. The film details the burgeoning relationship between Moses and the Turkish storekeeper, who rechristens the young man “Momo.”
In some ways, the film is rather tritely plotted. The idea of an unhappy boy being befriended by an older man is hardly new; however, the concept seems almost fresh these days, since many filmmakers would be afraid to touch it — even with Monsieur Ibrahim‘s “more innocent time” setting — owing to the inherent murky implications in the relationship. (Hard to blame them for their reticence in light of the apparent aims of that deservedly tanking atrocity New York Minute, and there’s a sad irony in the fact that the R-rated Monsieur Ibrahim is a far more innocent film than the PG-rated Olsen Twins soft-porn masquerade.) However, originality for its own sake can be overrated, and there’s nothing wrong with going over already trodden ground if you do it with grace, insight and a fresh point of view — and Monsieur Ibrahim has these three commodities in abundance.
While the film is simple in most respects, it keeps posing questions that it deliberately never answers. For instance, Ibrahim tells Momo that the boy is a hundred times better than his lionized big brother. Yet later, when a woman shows up claiming to be Momo’s mother (Isabelle Renaud, La Chambre des Officiers), she claims that he has no brother. Monsieir Ibrahim never tells us the truth — just as it never really clarifies whether the cameo by Isabelle Adjani is really supposed to be Brigitte Bardot (though it certainly suggests as much). At its core, though, the film is about the relationship between Ibrahim and Momo; as such, it’s beautifully realized, not in the least because filmmaker Francois Dupeyron manages to make the relationship both casually profound and light.
The sequence in which Ibrahim sets about adopting Momo is a good case in point. This is no complex and downbeat adoption drama, but rather a cleverly funny series of jump-cuts to various government officials until the scenario reaches its necessary conclusion. The whole thing is brisk and amusing, and it very much captures the spirit of the French New Wave movement in film, which was at its height at the time Monsieir Ibrahim takes place. I don’t know that I’ve seen anything as economic and creative as this bit in any movie released this year.
Even when the material is rather thin and obvious — and it sometimes is — Sharif and Boulanger’s performances make Monsieir Ibrahim agreeable. The film is certainly worth seeing if only for Sharif — and as an antidote to CGI vampires and werewolves and teenage girls in bath towels. But be quick about it. I very much doubt this film will be playing locally after Thursday.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke