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The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le mulet)

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Venice International Film Festival

VENICE, Italy -- A penchant for suffocating close-ups and an overabundance of scenes that go on far too long mar Abdellatif Kechiche's "The Secret of the Grain," an otherwise engaging drama about an immigrant Arab family in France.

Capturing the love, loyalty and internecine squabbles of a large family struggling to get by in an often unwelcoming land, the film features some excellent performances in its tale of a hard-working family patriarch who decides to open a restaurant on a boat.

Watching people eat and talk with their mouths open at length in close-up on a wide screen and listening to harangues that last way past their point of impact may not please all audiences but the film has many pleasures and should travel well

The secret of the grain in the title is the ability of a woman named Soaud (Bouraouia Marzouk) to make couscous out of it. All her sons and daughters and their partners gather at the table when she is cooking and she even makes a plate for her estranged husband Slimane (Habib Boufares).

Slimane has been laid off after 35 years of working on the docks and he decides to put his severance pay towards establishing a floating restaurant on an abandoned vessel that he is able to acquire for virtually nothing. His sons chip in to help renovate but he gets the most support from Rym (Hafsia Herzi), the beautiful daughter of his lover Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), who loves him as a father.

That doesn't go over well with the rest of Slimane's kids, especially stalwart daughter Karima (Faridah Benkhetache), who acts as her mother's ramrod in keeping the family together. It all gets very complicated when not only does Slimane refuse to give up on his dream project but also he intends Soaud's couscous to be the specialty of the house.

There are other complications involving Slimane's reluctance to give up his apartment and move in with Latifa and the errant behavior of one of his sons, Majid (Sami Zitouni), who leaves his wife Julia (Alice Houri) at home alone with their baby too often.

Director and co-writer Hechiche does a good job of establishing all the characters and shows the gradual coming together of Slimane's project with the casual racism he endures. The climax at an onboard fundraising banquet cuts away to several crises that put his venture at risk.

The writing and acting are fine, and the family gatherings are well staged but they become grinding due to constant close-ups and the director's lack of discipline in failing to yell cut while he's ahead. Boufares has an almost noble presence as the determined would-be restaurateur; Benkhetache shows the soft core inside Karima's tough exterior; and Herzi makes Rym wise beyond her years in a performance that grows from youthful enthusiasm to sensuous guile.

THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN
Hirsch and Pathe Renn Production
Credits:
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Writers: Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalya Lacroix
Producer: Claude Berri
Executive producer: Pierre Graunstein
Director of photography: Lubomir Bakchev
Production designer: Benoit Barouh
Costume designer: Maria Beloso Hall
Editors: Ghalya Lacroix, Camille Toubkis
Cast:
Slimane: Habib Boufares
Rym: Hafsia Herzi
Karima: Faridah Benkhetache
Hamid: Abdelhamid Aktouche
Soaud: Bouraouia Marzouk
Julia: Alice Houri
Serguei: Cyril Favre
Lilia: Leila D'Issernio
Kader: Abdelkader Djeloulli
Mario: Bruno Lochet
Jose: Olivier Loustau
Majid: Sami Zitouni
Olfa: Sabrina Ouazini
Riadh: Mohamed Benabdeslem
Latifa: Hatika Karaoui
Henri: Henri Rodriquez
Sarah: Nadia Taouil
Running time -- 151 minutes
No MPAA rating