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Family, for Better or for Worse

Abdellatif Kechiche's third feature is the slow-building saga of an Arab clan in the south of France.

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THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN ssss WRITTEN AND Directed by ABDELLATIF KECHICHE

Abdellatif Kechiche got his start more than 25 years ago as a movie and TV actor in France; if English-speaking viewers know him at all, they might remember as the Syrian cab driver befriended and then betrayed by Robin Wright Penn in the 2005 indie Sorry, Haters. As the director of three features, he's shown a marvelous talent for assembling strong ensembles and guiding them through dense, naturalistic scenes that reveal the codes and tensions of small groups. His first feature, Blame It on Voltaire (2000), follows a young Tunisian immigrant as he arrives in Paris and falls in with a band of derelicts at a homeless shelter; his second, Games of Love and Chance (2003), immerses us in a group of Arab teens in the Franc-Moisin housing projects outside Paris.

In The Secret of the Grain, which opens this week at the Music Box, Kechiche moves from these metaphorical families to a real one. Slimane (Habib Boufares), a weathered Arab shipyard worker in the southern port of Sète, is father to two sons and five daughters, most of them grown. But he's divorced from his wife and living in a cheap hotel, where he shares the bed of the middle-aged owner (Hatika Karaoui) and enjoys the adoration of her headstrong 20-year-old daughter (Hafsia Herzi). Kechiche, who was born in Tunisia and immigrated to France with his parents, draws on his own experience to create a family saga as rich in personal and cultural detail as a Victorian novel, his wallpaper a series of long, charged, loosely improvised family gatherings. The Secret of the Grain may touch on wider aspects of the Franco-Arab experience, its characters angrily denouncing or patiently negotiating the insults and strictures of white authority, but it's primarily the story of a clan, with all the enforced loyalty and buried resentments that word suggests.

Kechiche dedicates the movie to his own father, who endured a lifetime of tough jobs and inspired the weary Slimane. "My father could be like that," Kechiche told the International Herald Tribune. "Especially after a day of work, there is a silence that settles in, due also to fatigue, to the weight that they carried." Slimane's sacrifice makes him a powerful figure to his children, and in this movie of endless chatter his silence is magnetic. The first of Kechiche's extended domestic scenes begins when Slimane arrives at the house of his eldest daughter, Karima (Farida Benkhetache), to deliver some fish. She's busy scolding her three-year-old daughter, who refuses to toilet train, and as soon as grandpa arrives the child clamors for him, shifting the balance of power. The scene goes on for eight minutes, the adults' conversation about the decline of the shipping industry undercut by the subliminal drama over the disobedient child. As an added distraction, Karima's young son keeps angling for his dad's attention, knocking on his forehead and inquiring, "Anyone in there?"

The Secret of the Grain runs 151 minutes and maintains a languid pace for the first 90, as Kechiche brings Slimane's children into focus, revealing the outlines of their parents' bad marriage. Karima is loud and willful like her mother, Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk). Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem), the younger boy, has inherited Slimane's gentleness and generosity; Majid (Sami Zitouni), the elder son, who lives upstairs from his mother with his Russian immigrant wife and infant child, shares his father's adulterous urges. In the movie's opening scene, Kechiche focuses on a woman's leg peeking from a slit skirt and pans down to her pointed black shoe; she's a customer aboard a boat tour of the harbor, and Majid, who makes his living as a tour guide, takes her downstairs for some slap and tickle. Karima reads Majid the riot act about his infidelity, but for the most part the family protects him from outsiders, trying to ignore his moral flaws as they did Slimane's.

This closing of ranks is what gives the clan its power, and in the movie's most impressively choreographed scene, about 30 minutes in, Kechiche reunites the siblings, their spouses, and their children in Souad's dining room for fish couscous on a Sunday afternoon. It's a joyous and rowdy event, with the kids carrying on at a side table and the adults' conversation tumbling in every direction. Sarah (Nadia Taoul), another of the sisters, has brought her white husband, the comical Mario (Bruno Lochet), and when the subject turns to speaking Arabic Mario provokes great hilarity by revealing that she cries out in Arabic during sex. "It's handy for secrets with my friends," jokes Sarah, parrying him. Mario's not the only one on the outside: when Majid's wife, Julia (Alice Houri), makes a late and sullen appearance, someone jokes about Majid's late nights, and Karima won't risk a glance at her.

But nothing unites the siblings like their resentment of the beautiful hotelier, Latifa, and her straight-talking daughter, Rym. When the two sons show up at the father's hotel room with a plate of fish couscous their mother has prepared for him, Slimane invites Rym to join them, and a more intimate dinner ensues. Rym knows just where to needle Majid, mentioning that she's run into his wife and baby, and as she and Slimane eat, her easy tenderness toward him offends the young men, who sulk silently. "Not talking?" asks Rym with a smile. "Lost your tongues?" The boys bring news that the shipyard where Slimane has worked for 35 years will shut down soon, and they urge their father to take his severance pay and return to the old country. Rym is insulted by their disregard for her mother and, after they've left, goes off on Majid: "Let him go back. Good riddance. He thinks France is a whorehouse."

The Secret of the Grain kicks into high gear once Rym persuades Slimane, who laments having nothing to leave his children, to pursue his longtime scheme of opening a couscous restaurant aboard an old ship. When they decide to stage a gala dinner to attract investors and woo city officials, Souad magnanimously agrees to make her fish couscous, and the siblings and hotel musicians rally around Slimane. Given the movie's slow, careful development, I was hardly prepared for the cold-sweat suspense of the last half hour, when a terrible snafu threatens to sink the high-stakes party. Even as this is unfolding, the tension between the two families reaches a boil when Rym and her mother make a bold appearance at the party. As usual the family repels all outside threats—though, as Kechiche shows, they remain capable of inflicting even more damage on themselves.v

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