He gives us a Paris neighborhood for the underclass, a place where prostitutes take up their posts along the street and where young Moses (Pierre Boulanger in a first time role) watches them ply their trade from his modest apartment where he lives with his father (Gilbert Melik). Instead of wanting the latest board game or bicycle he's seen in a store, this 13-year old develops a strong hankering for one of the women on the street. Driven by hormonal awakenings, he breaks open his piggy bank and bravely offers what it contained to the lady of his dreams. She turns him down, but he's taken for deflowering by another streetwalker with a more generous attitude.
Having accomplished the task of establishing his manhood, he returns to his apartment to greet his morose and distant father with dinner after a drab day of menial work in an office. Needing something for the meal, dad sends Moses out to "the Arab," who turns out to be Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), the proprietor of the neighborhood general store. As Ibrahim explains to the boy that he's not Arab, he bestows on him the more familiar, affectionate name, Momo. And, as he forgives Momo his bit of shoplifting, we and Momo recognize the storekeeper's gentle nature and uncritical warmth.
This is in stark contrast to the callous treatment Momo receives at home, where he's subjected to constant criticism in harsh, demanding tones. More than once, the demeaning treatment by his father chases Momo out of the house. Having been abandoned by his mother and never knowing his older brother, he turns more and more to Ibrahim, who provides a needed comfort and a growing emotional attachment. Momo readily submits to Ibrahim's lessons about life, running a store, and his undemanding reference to his Koran. Though Ibrahim is a Muslim, he's not a fundamentalist, allowing an unusual bond to develop despite the religious divide. His gilded book, always at Ibrahim's side, is one of mystery and beauty to the wide-eyed Jewish youngster.
Therein, we have the central message of the piece. When people are open and curious, when humanity overrides the mandates of religion, cross cultural ties can flourish.
The relationship pays off when dad loses his job, abandons Momo, and commits suicide under the wheels of a train, shifting the emphasis now to the more demanding question of a teenager's survival without a parent. In an entrepreneurial spirit, if not a shortsighted one, the orphan hocks whatever's in the apartment for another taste of the streetwalker's favors. But the yearning of most importance is the relationship with his older friend.
How convenient to put this match together by creating a father who is morose, maladjusted, a borderline sociopath and to be conveniently taken off the scoreboard. This contrivance might be overlooked because of the essential positives in the package, which include unique moments of caring and a coming of age in unexpected circumstances. Its handling of religious themes and racial barriers is designed to avoid any hint of controversy or condemnation.
Both actors fit their parts well, with Boulanger audaciously personable and Sharif endearing and patient. As an elder statesman of the acting craft, Sharif is realizing his maturity with engaging depth and consummate skill. He nearly wins us over through a last act that abandons drama while it treats us to the new father-son relationship on a road trip. But the extended sentimentality of Depeyron's idealization is too much even for the actors' gifts as the story reaches for poignancy while closing in cloudy ambiguity with a melancholy aftertaste.
Aka Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran.
Now go get me a Dr. Pepper.
Run time: 95 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 17th September 2003
Box Office USA: $2.6M
Box Office Worldwide: $11.6M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: ARP Sélection
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Fresh: 68 Rotten: 12
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: François Depeyron
Screenwriter: François Depeyron
Starring: Omar Sharif as Monsieur Ibrahim, Pierre Boulanger as Moïse, Gilbert Melki as Père de Momo, Isabelle Renauld as Mère de Momo, Lola Naymark as Myriam, Anne Suarez as Sylvie, Mata Gabin as Fatou, Céline Samie as Eva, Isabelle Adjani as Star, Guillaume Gallienne as Vendeur de Voitures, Guillaume Rannou as Réalisateur, Manuel Le Lièvre as Policier, Daniel Znyk as Momo à 30 ans
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