The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mulet) – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #527 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
July 22, 2010 by Dennis Amith
“The Secret of the Grain” is a fantastic film, a rare film in which the nature of “realism” and genuine emotion is depicted quite rarely and successfully in the big screen in this form or manner. First time actress Hafsia Herzi just shines in this film with a fantastic performance and a true masterpiece from director Abdellatif Kechiche!
© 2007 Hirsch-Pathe Renn Production-France 2 Cinema. © 2008 IFC in Theaters LLC. All Rights Reserved. 2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.
TITLE: The Secret of the Grain – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #527
YEAR OF FILM: 2007
DURATION: 154 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:85:1 Aspect Ratio), Color, Surround in French and Arabic with English Subtitles
COMPANY: IFC Films/Pathe!/THE CRITERION COLLECTION
RELEASE DATE: July 27, 2010
Written and Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Executive Producer: Pierre Grunstein
Produced by Claude Berri
Cinematography by Lubomir Bakchev
Edited by Ghalia Lacroix, Camille Toubkis
Casting by Morgane Bourhis, Anne Fremiot, Monya Galbi
Production Design by Benoit Barouh
Art Direction by Christophe Couzon
Costume Design by Maria Beloso-Hall
Habib Boufares as Slimane Beiji
Hafsia Herzi as Rym
Farida Benkhetache as Karima
Abdelhamid Aktouche as Hamid
Bouraouia Marzouk as Souad
Alice Houri as Julia
Leila D’Issernio as Lilia
Abelkader Djeloulli as Kader
Olivier Loustau as Jose
Sabrina Ouazani as Olfa
Mohamed Benabdeslem as Riadh
Bruno Lochet as Mario
Cyril Favre as Serguei
Sami Zitouni as Majid
Mohamed Karaoui as Lafita
Henri Rodriguez as Henri
Nadia Taoul as Sarah
The winner of four César awards, including best picture and director, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain” is a stirring drama about the daily joys and struggles of a bustling French-Arab family. It has the texture of a documentary but a classic, almost Shakespearean structure: when patriarch Slimane acts on his wish to open a portside restaurant specializing in his ex-wife’s couscous and fish, the extended clan’s passions and problems explode, leading to an engrossing, suspenseful climax. With sensitivity and grit, The Secret of the Grain celebrates the role food plays in family life and gets to the core of contemporary immigrant experience.
In 2007, the French-Tunisian film “La graine et le mulet” (translation – “The Grain and the Mulet”) from the award-winning director Abdellatif Kechiche would become an award winning film and would also introduce the world to a young actress named Hafsia Herzi.
The film would win “Best French Film”, “Best Director”, “Best Original Screenplay” and “Most Promising Actress” at the 2008 Cesar Awards, “Best Director” at the 2007 Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival and would also win an award for “Special Jury Prize”, “Marcello Mastrioianni Price” (for actor actress in a debut role for Hafsia Herzi, “Signis Award” and a nomination for the “Golden Lion” Award at the 2007 Film Festival.
The English title for the award-winning film, “The Secret of the Grain”, will now be released on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
The film revolves around a divorced man named Slimane Beiji (played by Habib Boufares), a man who works at a shipyard but because he’s getting older and his productivity has decreased, he is essentially losing his job and now contemplates what he will do with his life and what he will leave for his extended family and so he decides to create a family restaurant that would specialize in his ex-wife’s couscous, a meal prepared for the family every Sunday.
The film shows us how life is for Slimane’s family. The family matriarch, Slimane’s ex-wife Souad (played by Bouraouia Marzouk) cooking couscous for family and friends, the viewer becomes part of the Sunday family gathering and become a voyeur into the discussion around the family table.
We also see how things are outside of the home as older son Majid (played by Sam Zitouni) is trying to keep his affair with another woman hidden from his wife Julia (played by Alice Houri), a Russian immigrant who has a baby boy along with Majid and is literally suffering an emotional breakdown because her husband is never home and suspects his infidelity. So, her brother Sergei lives with them and tries to support her during this difficult time.
We see how the family are around the dinner table with friends as they discuss their love for couscous and we are introduced to characters such as Slimane’s oldest daughter Karima (played by Farida Benkhetache), his younger daughter Olfa (played by Sabrina Ouazani) who often takes care of the children, the younger son Riadh (played by Mohamed Benabdesiem) and other characters, their wives and husbands (co-workers of Slimane).
Although the family does partake in the Sunday couscous, Slimane does not take part in the family dinner as he lives in a hotel/restaurant owned by his girlfriend Latifa (played by Hatika Karaoui) and her teenage daughter Rym (played by Hafsia Herzi) who looks at him as a father figure. There is resentment between Slimane’s children towards Rym and her mother and vice versa, but Slimane doesn’t want to be a part of that and not get into any family squabbles.
Slimane’s sons want him to move back to the countryside and start a new life but Slimane has no intention.
He wants to build a restaurant specializing on his ex-wife’s couscous dish and give the family some financial security for the future and so he buys an old junk boat and together with Rym and a few family members, they try to get the necessary funding and also put in a lot of time in restoring the boat and turning it into a restaurant.
Rym loves Slimane in a fatherly way and will do what she can to make Slimane’s dream of having a restaurant a reality.
Of course, because it is a long-shot in getting a bank loan and authorization to have a restaurant on a boat, Slimane wants to have a special night inviting local restaurateurs and local business members, key decision makers from the city who would consider him getting the authorization to have a restaurant on his boat and the loan officer from the bank to authorize the loan.
Will Slimane and his family be able to pull off this special night?
“The Secret of the Grain” is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1:85:1 and shot digitally via a HD Sony 900. According to the Criterion Collection, the high-definition master was converted directly from the Digital Intermediate color space to SMPTE Rec. 709 24fps 1080p and approved by director Abdellatif Kechiche.
This film sports amazing detail. The colors are vibrant and contrast and blacks are consistent through the film. Closeup shots look fantastic as you can see the skin pores especially the tears flowing down the face of Rym. I was very pleased with the colors and overall picture quality of this film. The outdoor scenes were just beautiful and really showcasing plenty of colors while the nighttime scenes did have some noise but overall, I was quite pleased with the film and its PQ.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“The Secret of the Grain” is presented in French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. According to the Criterion Collection, the audio for this release was mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master files using Pro Tools HD.
Dialogue is clear and understandable, good amount of surround usage during a few scenes sporting crowd ambiance and a few scenes featuring bulldozers and claws ripping out metal fixtures in the shipyard but for the most part, this is a dialogue-driven film in which I detected no audio problems whatsoever.
Subtitles are in English.
“The Secret of the Grain – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #527” comes with the following special features:
- Abdellatif Kechiche – (12:48) An interview with director Abdellatif Kechiche from March 2010. Kechiche talks about the film’s inspiration, the story, choosing a filming location, the belly dance scene, working with the various talents in the film, using a handheld camera and more.
- Sueur – (45:10) Featuring a re-edit of the belly-dancing scene (the complete scene of Herzi dancing, singing and the crowd getting into it) including an optional introduction by the director Kechiche (1:40).
- 20 Heures – (7:51) An excerpt from the French TV series “20 heures” featuring an interview with director Abdellatif Kechiche, actress Hafsia Herzi and discussion about the film winning four awards at the 2008 Cesars.
- Ludovic Cortade – (21:08) Film scholar Ludovic Cortade talks about the style and the message from “The Secret of the Grain”.
- Hafsia Herzi – (14:41) Actress Hafsia Herzi talks about auditioning for the character Rym, how she felt that she had to give it her all as this was her first major acting role, gaining weight for the film and then her feelings when she won an award at the Cesars and Venice Film Festival.
- Bouraouia Marzouk – (11:02) An interview with actress Bouraouia Marzouk who talks about how she became an actress, the various roles she had done and her role in “The Secret of the Grain”.
- Musicians – (15:17) Interviews with the musicians of “The Secret of the Grain” and how they got the opportunity to take part in the film not only as a musician but as an actor.
- Trailer – (2:11) The original theatrical trailer for “La Graine et le Mulet” (The Secret of the Grain).
- 16- Page Booklet– Featuring an essay titled “No Secrets” by Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morri and production credits.
When it comes to film that seem realistic by nature, verbose as if we are watching conversations with a perfect flow and for the most part, realism and conversation on the big screen done right, I’m a big supporter of those films.
Eric Rohmer’s 1969 film “My Night at Maud’s” is a perfect example of how it’s done right. It may have been too intelligent for some but I found it fascinating, real and for each time I see films that are championed by many viewers as films that showcase “realism”, I can’t help but raise an eyebrow to skepticism and the feeling of wanting a film to prove to me they can do it effectively.
“The Secret of the Grain” is one of those films that does it with near-efficacy.
The film showcases a French-Tunisian family. There is no didactic approach, if anything, with such scenes as the family eating couscous and you are engaged in the conversation, you are treated like one who is sitting at the table alongside the family.
As you hear a couple discussing the use of Arab in their home, what words we learned, to genuine moments of when someone shows up or if someone is in a bad mood, you literally forget that you are in a movie and sometimes think you are actually watching a digital video of a family get-together.
We also learn about the identity of Arabs in French society and how have some carried on their culture’s tradition and some who don’t through this dinner. But even in certain scenes as Slimane tries to get a loan or even when the local businesses are sitting at the restaurant and we see how their attitude is towards Slimane and bringing their culture and food to the area. Although subtle, we do sense the racism that permeates society towards the Arabs in French society.
Director Abdel Kichiche manages to capture this setting quite perfectly with a handheld camera as we see the emotions on the faces of these characters and it’s done so well.
But then the film leaves the family and returns back to the main character Slimane. An older man who lives away from his ex-wife and family and now lives in a hotel with his girlfriend and her daughter that looks up to him like a father. Slimane loves his family, despite being a man who tries to not get wrapped up with their personal affairs and typically the old fashioned father who worked for a living to support the family. His facial expressions rarely change but this is where his girlfriend’s daughter Rym (played by Hafsia Herzi) just shines.
To think that Hafsia Herzi has no theatrical background, she was a teenager from Marseilles who dreamed of becoming an actress, lied in her audition that she loves Eastern dancing and gets the role of a lifetime. But what is amazing is that Kichiche has discovered a rare starlet that is able to convey genuine emotions of an angsty and emotional teenager magnificently. She gained the weight, her belly dancing scene was challenging but she pulled it off.
The character of Rym loves Slimane like a father and is disgusted by his son’s who want him to move out to the country. She knows he is not talkative and so, she does all the talking during the business meetings. She gets the ball rolling for him and is a rare breed of a teenager being an adult. From her conversations with Slimane’s friends (who are musicians) to the conversations to Slimane and her mother Latifa of what ticks her off, you can’t believe this is acting from a newcomer with no acting experience. Herzi was fantastic in this role and is deserving of her Cesar and Venice Film Festival awards.
I can easily go on and on about how I enjoyed the realistic approach, the pacing of the film and also the vibrancy of the colors but I will caution the viewer that the final minute of the film may leave some people feeling content or disenchanted. I’ve read many reviews of people who loved the film but the ending was too abrupt and shocking for them. Many who felt it was an appropriate ending and I can say that I watched many French films let alone other films from foreign countries to not be shocked by last minute endings that come from nowhere.
In the case of “The Secret of the Grain”, the ending doesn’t come from nowhere but you sense that what happens is a possibility. But at the same time, depending on your optimism or negativity will help determine how one feels about the overall film.
“The Secret of the Grain” is a film that takes “realism” to a different level and you can easily sympathize with the characters. I’ve watched many films with many dinners and conversations and aside from Louis Malle’s 1981 film “My Dinner with Andre”, “The Secret of the Grain” is just so effective that you feel comfortable, you feel that the emotions are genuine and in the end, you feel fortunate that you had a chance to experience such a wonderful film.
The performance from its ensemble cast is well done. I’m not sure how much of it was scripted versus how much of it was improvised but somehow, director Abdellatif Kechiche was able to bring out the best in his talent. First time or not, the overall flow of these characters was well-done!
I know there are some people who may polemicize the portrayals of Arabs in the film. The fact that the director doesn’t focus too much on the culture and traditional/cultural garb but wanting to bridge his Arab culture with French culture and showcase universal themes. I felt that film scholar Ludovic Cortade did an excellent job in touching upon these issues through his featurette and really dissecting the film and the meaning of the film’s title in 20 minutes.
If anything, there is nothing I can say negative about this film but if I had to get nitpicky, it would have to be the film’s duration at 154 minutes and the length of certain scenes. Some may feel that the final 20 minutes could have been trimmed and edited but I believe the intention of the filmmaker was to keep the viewer engrossed…nearly impatient as the people who are at the restaurant waiting for their couscous, the same can be said for the viewer. Especially to see how things dramatically change for Slimane and his family members. But I was not looking at my clock to see how much time has elapsed, so that’s a good thing.
If anything, I felt that the director made a wise choice of what he included in the final cut of the film especially now knowing how the re-edit of the final scene (included in the special features) could have have been.
Overall, the Blu-ray release of the film is fantastic as you get a great sense of what director Abdellatif Kechiche was trying to accomplish but also to learn more about the cast, especially the talents Hafsia Herzi and Bouraouia Marzouk. The Criterion Collection really did a fantastic job with this release and it’s a very well-done Blu-ray release.
“The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mulet) – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #527” is highly recommended!
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