For its first thirty minutes or so, “The Secret of the Grain” looks like it’s going to be another European arthouse flick about nothing in particular. There’s a swirl of characters with a swirl of problems, none of which seem particularly solvable or interesting. It takes a stab or two at being a Mike Leigh film, with family dinner scenes that can’t possibly be scripted, but are, in their own peculiar way, interesting to watch.
But then, after dillydallying around about nothing, it becomes a movie very firmly about something, and at the same time, a much more interesting movie. Habib Boufares, a Turk who has been a dock worker in France all his life, decides to change careers and open a restaurant. Now all those people we aimlessly met in the first part of the movie begin to sort themselves out. His ex-wife makes the amazing couscous around which his restaurant will be based. This doesn’t go over too well with his current girlfriend, but her daughter is excited, and has the willpower and moxie to help him obtain the permits, authorizations, and loans he needs. His sons help him renovate the boat, and his daughters and daughters-in-law will be the wait staff. It’s a family affair.
Can he pull it off? “The Secret of the Grain” culminates in a big dinner aboard the boat. He’s invited all the important people – officials who are hesitant to give him permits, bank officers, investors, other restauranteurs – in an effort to impress them and grease the wheels a little. One can sense the latent racism in the crowd, but also their willingness to be convinced. Everything hinges on this one big dinner.
“The Secret of the Grain” ends suddenly, powerfully, and kind of strangely, with some clearly unanswered questions on the table (is the guy dead, or just given up? where did the big pot come from? What’s in it?) and, because of that, may feel extremely unsatisfying to some. I felt that way, but reflecting on it, there are just too many good things to give it a bad review.
Of the good things, perhaps the best is the arrival of 19 year old Hafsia Herzi to the screen. As Boufares’ pseudo-stepdaughter and biggest fan, she is a marvel to watch. She has amazing scene after amazing scene – my favorite is one in which she tries eleven different ways to convince her mother to come to the big dinner. It’s a great scene, and is followed by another, and another. I look forward to seeing this young, powerful talent in future movies.