Film Highlight: Secret of the Grain


In this remarkable third feature by the French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche, a 61-year-old shipyard worker in the port city of Sète is laid off after four decades of service and sets about opening a couscous restaurant aboard the decrepit boat he buys with his severance pay. For Slimane Beiji, played with quiet, solitary force by screen newcomer Habib Boufares, the restaurant is both a folie de grandeur and a final testament—a way, he hopes, to unite the disparate members of his family (including his ex-wife, his four grown children, his current mistress, and her daughter) and restore his own bruised dignity. Yet the more Beiji devotes himself to the project, the further it seems to drift out of reach. I'm almost afraid to say how highly I think of The Secret of the Grain, for there is something so fragile about what Kechiche does that it risks crumbling under the weight of inflated expectations. Like Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (whose sensibilities he recalls), Kechiche favors casual observation over dramatic obviousness—a lively family-dinner scene may go on for close to 20 minutes before we fully realize who all the characters are and how they relate to one another. Never do we feel the hand of the filmmaker forcing us from here to there, telling us how to think or what to feel. Then, gradually, a story of considerable narrative complexity emerges, and by the time The Secret of the Grain reaches its breathtaking final act, our pulses are racing and our hearts are in our throats.

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