Movies about kids befriended by old curmudgeons (and vice versa) are a dime a dozen (check out last year’s “Secondhand Lions”), but this French version of the story, adapted by writer-director Francois Dupeyron from a book by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, makes it seem almost fresh again. The youth in this case is Momo (Pierre Boulanger), a lonely Jewish teen living with his dour, unaffectionate father (Gilbert Melki) in 1960s Paris. The pair have a dark, sterile apartment in an area which may be called Rue Bleue, but is definitely a red light district, with hookers lining the road; and Momo, just on the cusp of manhood, eagerly secures an initiation with one of them, Sylvie (Anne Suarez), while also trying to connect with freckle-faced Myriam (Lola Naymark), the girl who lives downstairs and is into rock music. The nearest thing Momo has to a real friendship, though, is with Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), the local shopkeeper, a Muslim grocer who’s Turkish but is known in the trade as an Arab because he’s open all the time. Ibrahim overlooks Momo’s petty thefts from the store and even instructs the boy on how to stretch the money his father gives him to buy the groceries he must then prepare for their supper. Ibrahim also offers sometimes comforting, sometimes enigmatic advice based on his expansive Sufi reading of the Koran. (The original title of the picture, in fact, was “Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran.”)
At first, the bond between Momo and Ibrahim is occasional and even a bit tense, but that changes when the boy’s father first abandons him (just as his mother had done years earlier) and then–after a time when the kid manages to get along on his own by using leftover cash and selling items from the house–is reported to have committed suicide. Ibrahim adopts Momo and, suddenly overcome by the joy of fatherhood, purchases a flashy car, learns in a humorously halting fashion to drive (with Momo’s considerable help), and takes the boy off on a wondrous trip back to his homeland, introducing him along the way to the joys and profundities of life; they visit churches, mosques and coffee-houses along the way, with the smiling old man dispensing pearls of wisdom in the process. The duo make it to Turkey, where fate intervenes but Ibrahim maintains his upbeat faith in the face of it.
This is a fairly frail plotline, to be sure, and the conclusion comes as a rather damp squib, but the picture is enriched by the unusual sense of place, which–with its mixture of light and dark– gives the film an almost fairy-tale quality, and by the affecting lead performances. Sharif appears to be having a great time playing the serenely happy Ibrahim, and his enthusiasm is intoxicating. But it’s Boulanger who provides the film’s emotional core. In the hands of this screen newcomer, Momo becomes a figure not only of charm but of surprising depth and poignancy–a youngster whose dogged determination one can admire and whose charm seems natural and unaffected. Melki is suitably gruff as his father, and Suarez and Naymark are both likable as his very different female interests. Dupeyron uses his actors and locations well to create a seemingly magical atmosphere, aided immeasurably by Remy Chevrin’s spruce cinematography and a well-chosen selection of songs to accentuate the period mood.
“Monsieur Ibrahim” demonstrates that even a relatively stale plot can be refreshed by a good cast and knowing, imaginative treatment. With its unusual setting, winning characters and engaging performances, it’s an affectionate coming-of-age tale whose sweetness never becomes cloying, even in its later stages.