Anyone familiar with the Western European independent scene may have noticed a subtly momentous trend in the last two years or so; namely, that nebular multiculturalism is finally coming of age artistically, its ever-mobile borders being stalwartly charted before us on the big screen. The best scenes in Tunisian-French writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain resemble the unique protean bouillabaisses found in port cities: Every converging ethnicity offers an indigenous spice to the soup, and the forced relationships coax out flavors you never knew each ingredient possessed. At roughly one-third into this lengthy tale, an extended family of boatmen assemble for its habitual Sunday couscous dinner and the conversation, like the cuisine, mixes Arabic, Berber, French, and Russian. As the talk flits from language to language—through open mouths relishing flecks of pepper and roasted fish—we extrapolate elaborate sexual histories. How did the Arab wind up with the Frenchmen? The African with the Slav? Which children are the fruits of which communions? The film inspires us to locate emotional cognates within this web of characters, some of whom we only see for a few moments.
The family is that of Slimane (Habib Boufares), a first generation Tunisian immigrant in Séte who is recently divorced and laid off from a long-held shipyard position. The storyline, which is gradually teased out from a tangle of filial and romantic confrontations in the movie’s first half, concerns Slimane’s attempts to reestablish himself as patriarch by opening a floating couscous restaurant in the port with his ex-wife’s kitchen skills. Unfortunately, Slimane’s fatigued demeanor makes him a frustratingly passive protagonist: We’re never quite convinced of his entrepreneurial aspirations since he approaches every goal with the expectation of failure. But along the rocky path he enlists the help of his entertainingly loutish sons, his harried but strong-willed daughters, and, in the movie’s best performance, the nubile offspring of his hotelier lover: Rym (Hafsia Herzi), a precociously scene-swiping young woman.
Secret of the Grain achieves a magically verbose realism while developing these characters: The often handheld camera allows us to clandestinely inhabit a seat at the dinner table or in the living room, watching the family members—especially the female ones—dissemble their life woes with trilingual sarcasm. The script overflows with seemingly improvised dialog until we gasp for an act break; and yet, the fleshy climax, which takes place on the Murphy’s law-ridden de facto opening night of Slimane’s restaurant, pales in comparison to the bloated, repetitious scenes containing nothing but bald talk and clashing personalities (this film’s plot is painstakingly organic—not a single character spouts obvious exposition). The story has some of the qualities of producer Claude Berri’s orderly French sagas, but the novelistic lyricism has been replaced with intrepidly exploratory acting: It’s as if Mike Leigh adapted a rural African folktale for the screen, interpolating some of the sacrificial bittersweetness of Hans Christian Anderson.
International directors are discovering that while didactically proclaiming love for a mixed bloodline makes for an absorbing history lesson (the 2D puppet show of Iranian dynasty and revolution in Persepolis was delightful), the human core of the multicultural experience is best represented structurally, in the language of film itself—just as the anticlimactic ending of the aforementioned Persepolis mirrors the continuing flux of the Persian people’s tragedy. Much like Marjane Satrapi’s modernist memoir, Secret of the Grain suggests that the confused condition of a discorporated diaspora is best analyzed metaphorically, through the clumsy blossoming (and subsequent withering) of its female members. It’s not a perfect film, but perfection requires an organization that would instantly betray the racially-crowded French-Tunisian lineage, along with its past, present, and future matriarchs. The film is a rarity becoming increasing more common: a surreptitious creation myth crafted to inspire pride in even the most diverse and elusive of ethnic identities.