Set in a poor, ethnic neighborhood in Paris in the early ’60s, Monsieur Ibrahim tells the story of a kindly old Muslim grocer who befriends a young Jewish boy called Momo (short for Moses). The boy, who lives with his divorced father in a small apartment, is adrift. His father is distant, he’s never really known his mother and he has no adults to turn to except the local prostitutes, who can impart to him a certain practical knowledge but not the emotional sustenance he so desperately needs. Ibrahim, by contrast, is serene and friendly and ostensibly wise — though his wisdom is soggy and vague, a sort of “knowing-is-knowing-that-you-don’t-know” philosophy, which sounds deep but is really evasive. But then Ibrahim is such a likable old coot he can get away with it.
This all sounds appallingly heartwarming, but generally the movie is a pleasant surprise. It tells its story with an unexpected panache and wit, and is a good showcase for Omar Sharif, whose Ibrahim always seems to know the right thing to say. It’s also a good introduction to Pierre Boulanger, whose Momo conveys a lot of awkward charm.
Writer/director Francois Dupeyon for the most part avoids the pitfalls of unrestrained sentimentality, particularly during the first part of the film. Using a lively handheld camera he gets a neo-New Wave vibe going, an implicit homage made explicit during a scene where a film crew shows up in Momo’s neighborhood to shoot a movie that’s obviously a reference to Godard’s Contempt, complete with a cameo by Isabelle Adjani as a Brigitte Bardot look-alike. Dupeyon also makes good use of period rock, both French and American, and the sonic oomph of songs like, “Wooly Bully” and, “Hey Baby” energizes many a scene. Things get a little statelier once the story moves to Turkey as Momo accompanies Ibrahim on a journey to his birth place and the scenario moves toward its big emotional heart squeeze.
If in the end it all seems a little slight and manipulative, well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, at least not in this case. — Richard C. Walls
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, March 12-13, at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, March 14, at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237. Opens at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, west of Telegraph) on Friday, March 19. Call 248-263-2111.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].