Film Review: “The Secret of the Grain” (Abdellatif Kachiche, 2007)
by David Shasha
The precarious status of North African immigrants in France grounds the complex family drama that is “The Secret of the Grain.” Taking its title from the savory Fish Couscous that is a signature dish of the North African Arabs, the movie enters into the difficult world of one family led by a broken patriarch named Slimane.
Slimane works on the docks of an unnamed French city where his time as a laborer is about done. After working for over 30 years at the same place, he is now being moved out as labor costs are being slashed and he is now over 60 years old. We quickly learn that Slimane is divorced from his wife Souad and has a whole bunch of children and grandchildren. The film shows us a paterfamilias who is tired and worn out, his family bursting at the seams and tensions everywhere. Souad complains that he is late with the alimony checks and his daughter Karima is fighting mightily with her 2-year old daughter to get her potty trained.
The family is full of life, yet is clearly beaten down by their poverty and a creeping dysfunctionalism that permeates the very pores of their existence. They fight, love and live with great brashness, often hiding the fear and desperation of being immigrants.
Interestingly, this France is a place where not only Arabs are part of the lower class. One of Slimane’s sons, the profligate adulterer Majid, is married to a Russian immigrant named Julia. Treating her abominably, Majid is shown in the movie’s initial scene having torrid sex while at work as a guide on a French touring ship. Majid’s deceit will play a central role in the development of the movie’s story at its most critical moment.
Slimane leaves the dock with a crate of fresh mullet given to him by his friends on the boats; mullet being the fish most prized for the famed Fish Couscous which informs the film’s title.
Slimane drives off on his scooter and delivers the fish to the women in his life. After griping about the alimony and the ubiquitous fish that fills her freezer, Souad prepares a Sunday feast for her family where we get to meet the other son, Riyadh, and the husbands of the daughters; one of whom – the French one – attempts to speak a few words of Arabic with comical results. Souad, for all her diffidence and anger, is an expert cook and sits proudly as the matriarch of her family while they eat the food with great gusto.
The scene at the Sunday table is charged with the robust energy of the traditional Arab table. Filled with good cheer, bawdiness and inflamed passions, the meal is a microcosm of a world that has been transplanted from the North Africa that Slimane left so many years before.
The Fish Couscous is the anchor of the family get-together; a symbol of the wholeness and integrity of the native Arab culture now lost to the immigrants. Its grand sumptuousness is the talk of the table and the movie viewer is treated to the gastronomic brilliance with a loving eye to visual detail. Magnificent images of the couscous, the gleaming fish, the sauce, vegetables, and the peppers served as a traditional condiment to the dish, impose themselves in an almost tactile manner on the viewer’s consciousness, transforming the prosaic ingredients into sheer visual poetry.
Slimane, tellingly, is not present at the meal; he eats the Fish Couscous that his sons have brought, after they have finished the family meal, alone in his apartment and is eventually joined by the daughter of his current lover, a beautiful young girl named Rym. The alienation of the patriarch is a sign of the immigrant experience as a form of social collapse and cultural breakdown.
There is residual tension between Slimane’s two “families”: His two sons hang around in his apartment after bringing the food and lament that he lives in such a “dump”; the “dump” in question is the hotel owned by Latifa, Slimane’s lover. Rym comes by and shares the plate of Fish Couscous with Slimane and it becomes clear that Slimane has taken to her like one of his own daughters. But behind this love is the jealousy of Latifa who feels that Souad and her children have no respect for her and her daughter, both of whom have now become Slimane’s second “family.”
Rym is a precocious young woman who is strikingly beautiful in the manner of the Arab aesthetic. As is the case with the Arab erotic ideal, recounted over and over in the writings of Naguib Mahfouz, Rym – like the other women in the movie – is pleasingly curvaceous and a bit plump. Her magnetic sexual allure is another major element that will play a key role in the film. Riyadh keeps a watchful eye on her figure while Slimane remains inert; a static posture that will continue to mark his inability to speak out and definitively control the life he leads and direct the lives of those around him.
Slimane remains silent for large chunks of the movie; he is a man who has little to say and who does not make a big impression on others. He is worn down by the many years spent living away from his homeland; a subservient man who does as he is told. That he is now without work has turned him even more sullen and confused.
But he has a brilliant plan to change his fate.
Along with Rym by his side, he decides to take over a boat that has been marked for the trash heap and turn it into a North African restaurant. Rym is fluid in the conceptual languages of both the old North African world that Slimane was born in, as well as being a very clever French teenager. With her expert assistance, Slimane is able to glide through the bureaucratic circuit that is standing between him and his dream.
In order to build the restaurant he will require the help of all his children and friends as he has few material resources to get a bank loan. It is this that leads to the complications that drive us to the tale’s climax.
Along the way, we see an immigrant community that has embraced a certain form of diversity under the rubric of French multiculturalism. Though they are poor, they are all acculturated to this European society and have made their compromises with it. There is residual racism all around them, but it has become a natural part of their lives that is not permitted to intrude on their reality. There is a steely determinism in these North African immigrants that allows them to exist and to thrive in their world as best they can.
The French “natives” that Slimane meets are polite enough, but under the surface is a paternalism and cool racism that refuses to see the North Africans as being “one of us.” As Slimane and Rym go from the bank to the government offices needed to get the proper permits, we see that they are often spoken to like infants and incompetents.
At the inaugural evening that Slimane sets up on the boat to help promote the restaurant to a group of specially-selected “insiders,” the invitees are already seeking his demise and the failure of the project because they do not see North Africans as real Frenchmen. The racial dynamic is quite different from that of American racism in the pre-Civil Rights era: The French are very adept at presenting themselves as tolerant, yet behind their fake smiles is the harsh reality of a “White” people that has no real use for the “Coloreds.” This racism is covert and not quite in-your-face as the old American racism. Even their embrace of the Couscous dish is an exotic detour rather than an organic part of a new French culture that would seek to integrate the North African Arab immigrants.
Slimane has not only the French bureaucrats to worry about, but his own family. His ex-wife has become a curse to him, even as he turns to her magic touch as a cook to prepare the food for the restaurant. We are not told why the couple split, but there is a simmering antagonism that has torn the family asunder. It makes one wonder about Majid’s serial infidelities and what lessons he might have learned from the failure of his parents. It also broaches for us the larger theme of Exile and the loss of traditional values among the North African immigrants.
In traditional Arab society marriage is a sacred bond and family is something that means everything to a man. The entry of divorce into this culture is a sign of the new way of life that Europe represents. It is not that traditional Arabs do not get divorced – they are not Catholic! – but that the fissures created by the immigrant experience, the details of which are here left unarticulated, are part of a larger cultural dynamic that is best seen in the lack of respect for elders in this new society. Children are not as subservient to their elders as they would be in a traditional Arab society. As the film closes we see a group of young children take off with Slimane’s scooter, laughing at him in the cruelest manner.
The movie explores the dynamic between Slimane’s two families and the sense of honor and loyalty that is part of the characters’ actions.
Who will remain true to Slimane and who will let him down?
Where are the bonds of love and fidelity in this world?
The various characters work off of Slimane as a trigger mechanism to explore the theme of loyalty as the restaurant’s take-off becomes a critical moment in the story. Slimane’s entire existence has now become tied to the future success of the restaurant and his family members all play important parts in the restaurant opening.
A crucial element of the restaurant opening will be the ubiquitous Arabic music, “wounded kinship’s last resort,” that is played by Slimane’s friends from the hotel as an echo of a world that exists more in memory; a world that is both present and absent from the lives of the protagonists in their determination to become part of French society. The music is mere exotica to the French.
“The Secret of the Grain” is an extraordinary film from Abdellatif Kachiche whose cinematic eye successfully enters into the most intimate parts of his characters. We share with these people their lust, their joy, their boredom, their frustrations, their fear and their shame.
We recently took a look at the Israeli movie “The Band’s Visit” which by contrast had great difficulty dealing honestly with the harsh realities of its Jewish and Arab characters. The issue of language and identity becomes there a central indication of the complexities involved with Jews and Arabs. In “The Secret of the Grain” there is no such ambivalence: Each of these characters is fully fleshed out and permitted their very human foibles. It is the very dynamic of their harsh and difficult lives that fills the screen with a startling burst of energy and vitality that makes these people altogether human and sympathetic. Their identity does not need to be hidden from us; we know who they are and are totally with them as they experience life’s surprises.
As the movie marches to its grim conclusion, we have resolutely entered into the world of the North African housing projects in France and have become a part of a claustrophobic immigrant universe. We rub up against the characters’ bodies and feel their pain and heartache as they struggle to build their lives with a modicum of dignity. We feel the sting of racism as we understand the tribulations of family life with people living on top of each other in an impoverished environment where people struggle daily to pay their bills. We are disappointed by their lack of sound moral judgment and the cruelty that they sometimes exhibit to one another.
The film does not hard-peddle its messages or preach didactically about the sociological conditions of North Africans in France. It quietly presents its characters and their complex lives in a dignified manner in accord with the moral values of Arab culture. As these values are tested, so too are the characters forced to look inside themselves to see what they are made of.
At critical moments in the film we see some rise to the occasion and others fall. “The Secret of the Grain” contains within it a mystical tinge that is buttressed by a deep Humanistic concern that gives the audience a richly resonant moral center that must absorb the disappointments of its characters and the sad travail of their hard-scrabble lives.
The original French title of the movie was “La Graine et Le Mulet” yet the English title seems even more appropriate. The “Grain” of the title, the Couscous, represents the heartiness and backbone of these immigrant Arabs, while the mullet is part of the nautical tradition of La Mer, the Mediterranean Ocean shared by Europe, its northern shore, and Africa, its southern shore.
But at the core of the immigrant experience as presented in the film is indeed a “Secret” that unfolds for the viewer in ways that can beguile us, but can also become painful to watch and process. Like the Italian Neo-Realist films of the 1940s and 50s, “The Secret of the Grain” contains within it the seeds of human tragedy in the way that life is often cruel and unforgiving.
Slimane can be added to the list of the great tragic heroes in world cinema, complex characters like the title character in Vittorio de Sica’s “Umberto D.,” the elderly parents being shuttled between their ungrateful children’s homes in Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” and Kanji Watanabe in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” who present the viewer with life’s bitter struggle. These are people who haunt our conscience and stay with us forever as we continue to ponder what it means to live in this world. They are poetic figures grounded in the searing reality of the human experience.
Kachiche expertly frames his story and characters with a compassionate Humanism that does not flinch from the harsh truths of reality. It does so with an understanding that is rare in contemporary movies and imprints its story and its characters on the viewer in an indelible manner, making the movie a richly rewarding experience that serves to articulate an Arab reality often not seen in a media culture that has in the main dehumanized Arabs and their civilization.