Movie review: ''Monsieur Ibrahim'

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3-1/2 stars (out of 4)

Love appears in many forms, both in life and the movies. One of the most touching film incarnations on view recently comes in director Francois Dupeyron's "Monsieur Ibrahim," a gentle, sensuous French film about a Jewish boy's rite of passage and an old Muslim man's last journey.

The movie is adapted, with great heart and sympathy, from a semi-autobiographical book and play, "Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran," by Eric Emmanuel Schmitt. It's set mostly in 1960s Paris in the real-life Rue Bleue, a funky little residential-commercial district frequented by prostitutes.

The central character, Schmitt's obvious surrogate, is French-Jewish teenager Momo (winningly played by teenage newcomer Pierre Boulanger), a kid who loves American rock 'n' roll and lives with his gloomy father (Gilbert Melki) above the streets.

Part of "Ibrahim" is about Momo's severe family problems - he has a deeply depressed father and an absent mother (Isabelle Renauld). Part shows us Momo's sexual awakening at the hands of breezy local hooker Sylvie (Anne Suarez) and others, and his romance with the neurotic girl next door, Myriam (Lola Naynmark).

But the film's heart and soul lie elsewhere, in the unlikely friendship that springs up between Momo and elderly Turkish Muslim grocery store owner Monsieur Ibrahim. In a casting masterstroke, Ibrahim is played by legendary Egyptian movie heartthrob Omar Sharif, now 71. It's one of the two or three finest performances of his entire career and one of the Sharif roles, along with those in "Doctor Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia," that we'll most remember and treasure.

Ibrahim has known Momo since his childhood, and the store Ibrahim owns - called in Parisian slang an "Arab" because of its operating hours - is dark and crammed with foods, wines and pates. A widower who barely stirs from his seat at the cash register, Ibrahim seems to have only two consolations: regular readings from his Koran and his friendship with Momo, who both buys and shoplifts (as Ibrahim well knows) from the store.

For Momo, Ibrahim represents the paternalistic kindness he never knew. For Ibrahim, Momo represents youth and renewal. The two finally embark on a car journey back to Ibrahim's village - a voyage that might seem dangerously sentimental, except for the empathetic, evocative storytelling and the brilliance of the actors.The impish Boulanger is a terrific discovery. His performance as Momo won the best actor Hugo at the last Chicago Film Festival. But I thought the prize should have been shared by Sharif, who wrings magnificence from a seemingly commonplace character. Ibrahim (a name with both Jewish and Muslim connotations) is a different sort of role for the elegantly seductive Sharif: shaggy, plumpish and haggard. But Sharif is still a great romantic actor, and that famous, dark-eyed liquid gaze works its alchemy once again. He evokes perfectly an old man whose hard life and long journey from his Turkish village and homeland have helped win him spiritual riches few suspect.

That may sound sentimental - and the story too similar to Moshe Mizrahi's likable 1977 French hit "Madame Rosa," with Simone Signoret as an old Jewish prostitute who befriends a young Arab boy. But, as in the best of "Rosa," "Ibrahim" has characters who really live on screen. And thanks to Dupeyron, so does both the Rue Bleue, with its garish bustle, and the more muted Turkish countryside.

There's a joyous, sometimes bittersweet quality to this film. The sex is handled in the wry, realistic and non-sniggering way we expect from the better French films: sensuality without Puritan guilt or lasciviousness. The atmosphere is rich, the visuals vibrant, the period '50s-'60s rock score (Chuck Berry to Bruce Channel) a hoot, and the characters truly and richly drawn.

Most movingly, "Monsieur Ibrahim" takes a provocative subject - friendship and love between a Jew and a Muslim - and makes it seem natural and wondrous. Too many movies, however entertainingly, drive people apart. Here is a little gem that opens up a page of flowers, speaking to us convincingly and inspiringly of amity and peace.

"Monsieur Ibrahim"
Directed by Francois Dupeyron; written by Dupeyron, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, from the book and play "M. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran" by Schmitt; photographed by Remy Chevrin; edited by Dominique Faysse; production designed by Katia Wyszkop; music by Chuck Berry, Bruce Channel, Trini Lopez, etc.; produced by Michele and Laurent Petin. In French and Turkish, with English subtitles A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: R (sexual content).
Monsieur Ibrahim - Omar Sharif
Momo (Moses) - Pierre Boulanger
Momo's Father - Gilbert Melki
Momo's Mother - Isabelle Renauld
Myriam - Lola Naynmark
"La Star" - Isabelle Adjani
Sylvie - Anne Suarez

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