Being a movie critic has trained me to be instantly wary of all films that too obviously play on sentimentality. There are just certain movie themes that have been done to death, and the themes themselves are simply too easy of a choice for directors. A film about a terminal illness, for example, has to be done exceptionally well for it not to be trite and cliche. Sentimentality in film is often the same thing as cheap emotional manipulation. Films about children are often another cheap source of easily obtained emotional reactions from audiences. If you place children in danger or otherwise treat children characters poorly, you basically have a guaranteed instinctual reaction from your audience. The film I just finished watching was 2003?s Monsieur Ibrahim, and while it was unashamedly sentimental, it rose above its source material through a genuine and personal touch that lended credence to an otherwise familiar tale.
Monsieur Ibrahim is the story of a young Jewish, French teenager named Moses Schmitt living in Paris in the 1960?s. Moses’s father is never home, and even when he is, he verbally abuses or ignores Moses. Moses seeks out affection from the local and friendly prostitutes whose love he can buy at 30 francs a pop. Moses’s only true friend is the local grocer, an elderly Turkish Muslim named Ibrahim (film legend Omar Sharif). Ibrahim knows that Moses steals from his store in order to survive, but Ibrahim turns a blind eye because he genuinely cares for the boy. Eventually, Moses’s father runs away, and Ibrahim takes it upon himself to look out for and take care of the boy who lovingly refers to as Momo. Through each other, the boy and the old man learn lessons that re-shape each other’s lives.
Omar Sharif was an A-list star at the height of his career, and his biggest picture, Lawrence of Arabia, is the next film that will be coming in the mail from Netflix. While I was never quite able to puzzle out why exactly it was he cared so much for this boy who he knew so little about at first, Omar Sharif gives him a genuine warmth and kindness that sells the part even when logic has me slightly confused. He and the boy had a very natural screen chemistry, and their father/son relationship should have been more difficult to believe than their seeming compatibility would let on. While I’m not saying this was a child performance on par with Lena Leandersson in Let the Right One In, Pierre Boulanger was a natural as Moses. The kid is put through all sorts of hell throughout the film, and for a child actor, he is able to capably handle a wide array of emotions and levels of intensity. I was honestly surprised to see that he had so few film roles after this. I think he could have really been a top-grade talent.
I’ve mentioned this in several other reviews, but I’ll say it again. I’m ethnically Jewish. Growing up, one of my best friends was a Muslim although I didn’t know until we were both much older. The conflicts in the Middle East often raise a lot of tensions between the Jews and Muslim world, and I really appreciated how this film showed an absolutely beautiful relationship between a young Jewish boy and an elderly Muslim man. I’m not entirely sure if that was an intentional theme of the film because while Ibrahim’s Islamic heritage is a major part of his character, it’s not really as big a deal for Momo’s Jewish background. However, I do believe a theme of the film was tolerance and love and acceptance, and while those are easy things to make a film about, I thought the film succeeded in portraying these ideals.
This wasn’t a great film, but it was still a memorably personal and touching story. The vast majority of the films that I watch for this blog are quite dark and depressing, and for once, it was a relief to watch a film that touched on the brighter sides of humanity. While the film certainly has darker moments such as the boys relationships with the local prostitutes and his father, the overall core of the film is one of reaching out to your fellow man when he’s in need, and how can you turn that message down? For any one who enjoyed Liam Neeson’s story in Love Actually or ever had a father figure of their own that wasn’t their real father, I can recommend this with ease.
Final Score: B+