Sony // 2003 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // August 24th, 2004
Two different generations. Two separate religions. The unlikeliest of friendships.
Monsieur Ibrahim sits in an odd place between advancing a lot of coming-of-age movie clichés and trying to do something completely original. The result is a bit messy and less satisfying than it should be, but it also has a lot going for it.
Coming of age is a difficult thing to do, and even more difficult if you have to do it all alone. That's certainly a problem that Moses (Pierre Boulanger) is familiar with. His mother left many years ago with his older brother, leaving him to take care of the house and his father, who works really hard and wishes Moses could be more like his brother.
Moses responds to this pressure in a variety of ways. He breaks his piggy bank in order to try to hire one of the prostitutes who works across the street. He courts a pretty girl who lives nearby. He also befriends an aging Muslim man named Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif, Hidalgo, Lawrence of Arabia) who runs the local grocery. As the rest of his life falls apart around him, Moses grows closer to the old man, finding his wisdom able to guide him like nothing else in his life has been able to do.
The coming of age that Moses experiences is very familiar and at times downright heavy-handed. He exchanges his childhood savings in order to become a man. He later exchanges his father's books in his further pursuits of happiness. He doesn't find that contentment in the arms of the local prostitutes or in his relationship with the girl next door, but rather from the wisdom of Monsieur Ibrahim, who places more faith in experience than book knowledge. He is also rejecting his father for the love and respect of another man, a man that sees his value and genuinely loves him. Much of the early part of the film follows Moses's rejection of his father, who has no affection for him and constantly compares him to his much older brother. This portion of the film is well handled, but it all feels quite mundane and a little too simplistic.
What does make Monsieur Ibrahim stand out is the nature of the relationship between Moses and Monsieur Ibrahim. The eccentric grocery store owner is not a normal father figure, but he's the only man that has ever shown Moses any kind of hope and respect. Their relationship grows from normal, everyday interaction instead of some kind of crisis, and their conversations are always interesting and entertaining. These two performances are what hold the film together, and they handle that job quite well. Omar Sharif is delightful to watch as the old shopkeeper, and I found myself wishing for more figures like him in my own past. The generosity and sacrifice that he has for the young boy comes through in his smile and his words, and I never doubted his sincerity. Newcomer Pierre Boulanger is also excellent, in a pretty tough role. He has many personal and solitary scenes, but never breaks his performance for a moment.
Things get a lot weaker once Moses and Ibrahim embark on their cross-Europe tour. A few minutes at the end of the film isn't really enough time to establish the point of this trip, and it shifts the focus of the film in a direction that simply doesn't make sense. More than anything, the end of the film seems rushed, especially after quite a bit of repetition and slow scenes in the first half. This pacing problem is one of several that hold the movie back from being what it could have been
Whether intentional or not, Monsieur Ibrahim never manages to make a real statement about the religious ideas that run through the film. While the relationship between the two men works fantastically, the broader cultural implications, if any, are never properly explained. It's easy to pick out the lesson that Moses is supposed to learn through his travels and coming of age, but it feels like there's supposed to be a larger lesson for the audience to learn. I'm not sure what that lesson is, though. Perhaps we are being asked to reject book knowledge in general in favor of the lessons we can learn from our elders, even if they have a different set of beliefs. That seems the most likely, although some pieces are missing and some moments of the film contradict that idea as well. Religion, especially Judaism and Islam, are pretty sticky notions in the current international political climate. Although this film is more willing to dig into religious ideas than most of its Hollywood counterparts, it still feels as though writer/director François Dupeyron is frightened to make any strong statements.
The transfer is quite solid. The video transfer captures the cinematography well, capturing the feel of the early '60s quite well. It isn't the sharpest image I've seen, but it does the job. There are no visible flaws, though the shadows lack detail at times. The audio transfer is also good, with clean dialogue and a fun (if slightly repetitive) soundtrack. The sound stage seems mostly trapped in the front channels, especially for a 5.1 track. A little more depth for the music would have been nice, but certainly not necessary.
The only real extra on the disc is a commentary track with Omar Sharif. He sets out to discuss the making of the film, but instead begins a wide-ranging discussion on a number of topics. At times, he explains what is happening in the film, but more often he discusses his own experiences. These recollections are entertaining, because they demonstrate why this was such a personal project for him, and why his role worked so well. Even though it would have been interesting to have Pierre Boulanger do the track with him, it's a fascinating track that fans of the film or actor will enjoy listening to. Omar Sharif is surprisingly open about some of his own personal experiences. So, if you were ever curious about his first sexual experience, you know where to turn.
Despite a few flaws, Monsieur Ibrahim is a very pleasant coming of age film with some serious issues brooding under the surface. Thoughtful film fans will want to give it a viewing, and some will certainly want to add this disc to their collections.
Everyone involved has been found not guilty, regardless of race and religious affiliation.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Omar Sharif
* Official Site