Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Secret of the Grain (The Criterion Collection) (2007)

The Secret of the Grain***** 2007. Written and directed by Abdel Kechiche. Four French Academy awards (Best movie, director, writing and promising actress), Prix Louis Delluc and five awards in Venice. The difficult integration of the Arab born community in the social life of the Port of Sète, France. After Games of Love and Chance, a movie that was also chosen as best French film in 2003, Abdel Kechiche returns with this allegorical vision of integration. The French title, LA GRAINE ET LE MULET aka The Seed and the Mullet refers to the culinary specialty, a couscous with fish, the hero of THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN wants to propose in his restaurant. If you consider that, on top of this important theme, magnificently handled, the performance of the actors is human and natural, you'll understand why this film has to be considered as the best French film of last year. A masterpiece that should already be in your library.

The French have a habit of making movies that start off very slow, and then capture your attention, not with action, but with emotion and story. This is the case with this story about a shipyard worker that is getting laid off. The tensions that emerge, with his nagging ex-wife, his children and their families, with whom he keeps as close as he can, and his girlfriend and her daughter who thinks of him as a father, combine with his efforts to open a restaurant on a boat that he bought.

What could have been a testament to tenacity, the power of love, friendship, community and family however becomes a moral tale where the morale is: "Why bother?"

The belly dance scene by the girlfriend's daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi) trying to save the restaurant is outstanding. At the end, just as everyone, friends and enemies, are pitching in to save the day, the director decides to finish the story, not as an elegy, or an inspiring tale, but as a mockery to the power of human effort.

It reminded me of "The Bicycle Thief" Only in color.

Buy The Secret of the Grain (The Criterion Collection) (2007) Now

THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN (LA GRAINE ET LE MULET) as written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche offers the viewer a different version of the importance of family and the need to bond for survival. Kechiche is known for casting his films with unknown actors (or even fist time actors) and while some may view this as self-indulgent exercise in proving that a film can be made without the aid of a talented cast, others will appreciate the fine performances he is able to draw from both unknowns (Habib Boufares) and stars on the rise (Hafsia Herzi).

The story is fairly straightforward (despite the fact that it takes 2 1/2 hours to tell!): in the Southern France port city of Sète, populated with many French-speaking Arab immigrants who eke out a living repairing boats and fishing, lives senior citizen Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) and his friends and family an ex-wife chronically angry about missed alimony payments, an adulterer son, and girlfriend who satisfies him and also has a daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzl) who adores him. Slimane struggles with his job, has his hours cut back severely, and together with his friends who also are suffering economically, bond more strongly. Eventually Slimane comes upon the idea of establishing a restaurant housed in a deserted old ship that he purchases and with the help from his family and his friends (especially supported by Rym) he opens his restaurant that features the fish with couscous recipe of his ex-wife.

The reason this too-long film ultimately satisfies is the completely spontaneous atmosphere created by director Kechiche: the dialogue feels completely improvised, as though we happen to be passing by Sète and overheard a colony of down and out immigrants from North Africa transform their fates. It may take a lot of patience to sit through the first half of the film, but the end result is rewarding. Grady Harp, September 10

Read Best Reviews of The Secret of the Grain (The Criterion Collection) (2007) Here

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 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.


"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).


* 16Page BookletFeaturing 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!

Want The Secret of the Grain (The Criterion Collection) (2007) Discount?

Is there a secret to the grain?

Not really, its like good lasagna to a second/third/fourth generation Southern Italian American family gathered around a dinner table somewhere in a bedroom community of New York City. The wonderful earthy kitchen aromas of tomato sauce, perfectly spiced meatballs and Parmigiana Reggiano lend a sensual ambiance that lulls these assimilated would-have-been peasants from the Old World into a cultural time capsule that transcends all the homogenization (education/refinement/development) that the New World has to offer.

Director Abdel Kechiche understands this need for Old World familiar. In his film "La Graine et le Mulet" (The Grain and the Mullet) his characters savor the Tunisian dish of couscous and fish as the one universal crowd pleaser that sensually nourishes and positively unites all the film's characters (North African immigrants and the ensuing Beur generation of French-born, Verlan-speaking, traditionally Arabic albeit French citizens) otherwise burdened in varying degrees dependent on age and generation by simple survival in an adopted country (France) where assimilation flounders on culturally diverse ground.

Kechiche exquisitely renders the lives of 61 year-old Slimane (Habib Boufares and his large family with a deft pointillist's love of detail that seems so natural as to be unscripted and unedited. Mundane slices of everyday life are studied almost to the audience's saturation point--Kechiche's camera shifts with a tremulous vibrato as it picks up facial details and seemingly meaningless gesticulations during family conversations revolving around potty training and marital life. Astonishingly, these segments immerse the audience with their living and breathing authenticity--one cannot help being a part of all those dinners as the tongue-tied guest assimilating into a world of family that becomes easier to know as the platters progressively move around the table. After two and a half hours of watching and listening the actual storyline does not seem to matter as much as becoming an honorary member of the family and steadfastly interloping on vignettes that reveal not only character but also a wider universal theme of when what was once called multiculturalism ironically morphs unbeknownst to its observers as `the' culture of the country.

The plot vehicle that allows us our voyeuristic adventure is the plight of Slimane. After working for over thirty-five years in the shipyards, a taciturnly distraught Slimane finds his hours cut and his construction of a better life in France fraught with the holes of regret and invalidated by suggestions from his sons to return to a mother country that in the hopeful temptation of dream could offer him untold riches. Divorced from the mother of his children, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), he lives in a small room that is part of the hotel owned by his girlfriend, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), and her 20-something daughter, Rym (Hafsia Herzi) with whom he has a close relationship that exceeds that which he has with his own children. To alleviate his financial woes, he decides rather cavalierly to renovate an old boat and convert it into a restaurant where he will serve Souad's marvelous couscous and fish to the music of a hypothetical cash register ringing.

Amidst the interferences of family life in which the audience discovers the interplay between Souad's daughters and Latifa and Rym, the film plays out its final act on opening night aboard the new floating restaurant with all the passion of a Greek tragedy. Complete with a chase scene that leaves one white knuckled with both frustration and exasperation (the scene seems to go on and on), we are treated to food, drink, belly dancing and a fly in the ointment that eventually ends with a gasp and double take as the credits roll.

Bottom line: "The Secret of the Grain" is fascinating. Highly recommended it engulfs one in its reverence for family minutia where we sympathize with the plight of Slimane but also remember the dreams of other immigrants in other places as they assimilate into countries that are both benevolent and haughty in their expectations. Actress Hafsia Herzi hums with an intensity that acts as the perfect loquacious foil for the quiet lead, Slimane.

Diana Faillace Von Behren


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