Largely ignored by American audiences in 2003, Francois Dupeyron’s Monsieur Ibrahim can finally be seen for what it really is: a small gem of the highest order, a celebration of life’s discoveries, and one of the great pieces of French cinema to emerge out of the first decade of the 21st century. At a time when the world has just overseen a dynamic revolution in Egypt, what a pleasure it is to be returning to this film, which boasts a sensational, swansong performance from the world’s finest Egyptian actor: Omar Sharif.
Monsieur Ibrahim was one of the first films released in the new century to stress a message of tolerance between Jews and Muslims—it paved the way for masterworks like Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) that would later address the issue on a much more complicated scale. Dupeyron’s film, set in 1960’s Paris, focuses on the small-scale relationship between a Jewish teenager and a Muslim shopkeeper. The unlikely friendship between them is the heart of the film, and, like so many such friendships in various other films, it begins after one of the main characters commits an act of prejudice, and the other proceeds to show him his mistake.
We are introduced to Moses, aka Momo (Pierre Boulanger), as he looks out from his bedroom window at the downtown life on Blue Road, which crawls daily with rabbis, schoolchildren and prostitutes. Momo looks out longingly at that world: he’s not old enough for it, or so he thinks. The film details Momo’s journey into manhood, which he promptly ticks off after he smashes his toy piggy bank to pieces, thus “breaking” the bonds of his youth. A visit to the buxom, brown-haired Sylvie (Anne Suarez), the kindest of the local hookers, frees him from his virginity—but not, unfortunately, from his dreary existence at home.
Momo’s own daily life, it turns out, is sadly lackluster. He lives at home with a father (Gilbert Melki) who is cruel and unkind, and who never smiles once in the film except for in a fleeting moment, when Momo reminds him that it is his birthday. So boring is life at home that Momo frequently amuses himself by shoplifting from Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), who owns a general store across the street. Momo tries to justify his actions in thoughts that are heard in a voiceover: “I don’t care, he’s an Arab… he’s an Arab! Even if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t care.” That’s why he is caught off-guard when he walks into the shop later on, and Ibrahim informs him, “I’m not an Arab, Momo. I’m from the Golden Crescent.” Is Ibrahim a mind reader?
And that’s just one of many cinematic touches swimming in Monsieur Ibrahim, a movie that is deeply in love with the cinema. Consider the sequence in which Momo walks out onto Blue Road one day and joins with a fascinated crowd, as they watch Jean-Luc Godard filming Contempt on the street. It’s a nice touch to Godard, but Dupeyron’s film actually owes a lot more to Francois Truffaut: the character of Momo is heavily influenced by Antoine Doinel from The 400 Blows (1958). But there’s even more cinematic influence in the character of Ibrahim, which is evidenced in his remark to Momo about Brigitte Bardot’s great figure: “Imagine me in a boat with her and my wife. The boat sinks. What do I do? I bet that my wife knows how to swim!” It’s a clever reminder of the love triangle Sharif got himself caught in so many years ago in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), and the cheapness of Zhivago even carries over to Ibrahim when he charges Bardot herself (Isabelle Adjani) extra when she strides into his shop asking for a bottle of water. As Momo ashamedly learns, it’s because Ibrahim needs to “make up for all the cans you pinch.” But Ibrahim holds no grudges against the young Jewish boy.
“Listen to me,” he tells Momo. “You owe me nothing. If you have to steal, I’d prefer you do it in my shop.” Ibrahim repeats this to make it clear. It’s a sign that Ibrahim has put his trust in Momo, and it marks the beginning of the friendship between them that builds up the best scenes in the film. The film itself is not just about friendship, but about the problem of the pursuit of happiness, and it offers three solutions: smiles, sex and dance. Neither one can exist without the other. When one doesn’t work, the other makes a fine substitute. Dupeyron suggests that it’s all part of one big cycle.
For instance, Ibrahim observes that Momo doesn’t smile very often. Momo claims, “I can’t afford to… it’s for happy people.” “You’re wrong,” Ibrahim corrects him. “Smiling is what makes you happy.” And as Momo finds out, a lot of doors can be unlocked with a simple smile. Walking around, Momo tries smiling at various people, and sure enough, it works: on his math teacher, on the hookers, and even on the red-headed girl (Lola Naynmark) who hula-hoops under his window. That Ibrahim does a lot of smiling in the film is only natural, since Omar Sharif has always had the most infectious grin in the history of movies—there’s a moment in the film when Ibrahim and Momo have a conversation about braces, and it gives Sharif a chance to show off his famously gap-toothed smile. Pauline Kael once called Sharif “a walking love scene,” and, at 71 (the age he was when the film was made), Sharif proves that he still holds the market in that department.
When smiling doesn’t bring him happiness, however, Momo turns to sex as an alternative. And Momo isn’t the only one: he watches from his window one night and notices that his own father sometimes visits the hookers, one of them being Sylvie. The hookers have a hunch of their own that Brigitte Bardot might have slept her way to the top. Even Ibrahim has a healthy sex life: in a weird bit of grown-up advice, he reminds Momo, “It’s good to start off with professionals—but afterwards, when you complicate things with feelings, then you’ll appreciate novices.” It’s a red flag that even Ibrahim sometimes sleeps with the hookers: “You go, too! At your age!” Momo observes, to which Ibrahim replies, “Heaven is for all of us, not just minors.” (On the DVD commentary track, Omar Sharif tells a bizarre story about losing his own virginity at age 15; he claims that upon walking out of the hotel, he met Glenn Ford and then promptly convinced the bemused actor to autograph a porno movie poster for him.)
And dancing. Momo picks up a habit of dancing from the red-headed girl, whose name is Myriam and who teaches him how to jive—even when there’s no music. Soon Momo finds himself dancing in dark areas, always checking to see if anybody’s watching, always hoping that Myriam will show up sooner or later and dance right with him. Not surprisingly, Ibrahim is a dancer, too; in another helpful bit of advice to Momo, he tells the boy, “When you dance, your heart sings, and then rises to heaven.” In one of the most stunning sequences in the film, Ibrahim and Momo enter a tecche dancing hall and watch a group of Turkish Sufis spinning around and around in white gowns. “It’s like a prayer,” Ibrahim explains. “They lose all their bearings—that burden we call balance. They become like torches. They burn in a blazing fire.”
So, the movie says that smiles, sex and dance all factor into a sort of cycle of happiness. Momo’s habit of smiling at people works on everybody except his father, who looks upon Momo’s smile and then cruelly remarks that his teeth are crooked—thus killing Momo’s smile. In defiance, Momo has sex with various hookers, which works until he learns that his father has been run over by a train—thus killing Momo’s sex drive. When Momo and Ibrahim embark on a road trip to Turkey, Momo, fascinated by the dancing of the Sufis, tries dancing with the local Turkish kids—they are not amused, and their rejection (temporarily) kills Momo’s love of dance. And towards the end of the film, Ibrahim offers yet another alternative to Momo in his pursuits: “Slowness… that’s the key to happiness.” But then Ibrahim, in attempting to "slow" down time by driving up to his old home in the hills, is wounded in a car accident and dies. Thus, in an attempt to “slow” down time and revisit his past, “slowness” winds up killing Ibrahim altogether.
Dupeyron weaves this “cycle of happiness” quite effectively into his screenplay, which he adapted from a book and play by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. On the DVD commentary, Sharif describes Dupeyron as “a very intelligent, very pure and very fresh person… a little provincial, but very cultured.” The good relationship between Sharif and his director is deeply felt in each of the film’s scenes. It’s a miracle that Dupeyron convinced Sharif to be in the movie at all—Sharif had been in semi-retirement from acting at the time, and only jumped back into the profession after Dupeyron’s excellent script fell into his hands. The character of Monsieur Ibrahim is an excellent part for Sharif, who hadn’t had a great part for decades and whose career had gone downhill after the 1960’s (since Monsieur Ibrahim, Sharif’s career has, unfortunately, reverted to its original patchiness—Joe Johnston cast him effectively as a desert sheik in 2004’s Hidalgo, but then Roland Emmerich wasted him as the narrator of 2008’s 10,000 B.C.). Dupeyron recognizes the natural acting talent in Sharif, however, and it’s just one of so many things that has allowed Monsieur Ibrahim to age so gracefully.
Not only that, but the rapport between Sharif and Pierre Boulanger (who has every bit the charisma of a young Jean-Pierre Leaud) makes for some of the most impressive pieces of acting in the last decade of world cinema. Some of their scenes are humorous, as when Momo tries to give Ibrahim helpful hints during his driver’s exam—a reminder of the agonizing aura of a driver’s exam to which any beginning driver (this writer included) can testify. Some of the other scenes between them are more philosophical, such as their conversations about religion. Society would tell them that, being a Jew and a Muslim, they should despise each other, but they don’t—rather, they find comfort in sorting out their religious differences. “What does being Jewish mean to you?” Ibrahim asks. Momo is dumbfounded: “I don’t know… for my dad, it means being depressed all day. For me, it’s why I can’t be different.”
Because Ibrahim is a devout Muslim who lives his life by the Koran, there have been some ridiculous Internet theories about the film’s intentions—one of them being that it’s supposedly about a Muslim trying to corrupt a young Jewish child with Al-Quaeda worldviews. Some of the other theories I’ve read about the film are more plausible—for instance, the implications behind Ibrahim’s fatherly treatment of Momo. There’s a running subplot in the film about Momo’s long-lost older brother, “Paulie”, whom Momo himself has never even met; when Momo asks Ibrahim if he has ever met Paulie, Ibrahim firmly declares, “I prefer you a hundred times.” Momo’s father seems to dislike Ibrahim intensely, but never tells his son why. After Momo’s father is run over by a train, the police come to Ibrahim’s shop to ask questions—Ibrahim then takes them into a backroom so that Momo cannot overhear their conversation with him. When a woman (Isabelle Renauld) claiming to be Momo’s mother shows up at the flat, she reveals, “Moses was my first-child.”
What does all this mean? Was “Paulie” made up? Was Momo’s father, in fact, a stranger to the family? Is Momo, in fact, Monsieur Ibrahim’s illegitimate son?
I don’t know. Dupeyron’s film is as full of mysteries as it is full of pleasures. At the end of the DVD commentary, Omar Sharif spells out his feelings about the film in as direct a way as possible: “I’m glad I did this picture. It gives me a sort of inner happiness, a sort of peace at my age—a peace that I have made a little stagnant—about love between people, as opposed to hatred.” His joy is expressed in his onscreen performance, and it’s a joy that is shared by the writer/director—as well as the rest of the cast and crew. Monsieur Ibrahim is, above all, one of those rare films that looks like it was great fun to make. By the end, I was smiling, but not just because of the film’s good nature: because it’s the kind of film that encourages a smile, and because it believes that movies are still capable of such power.