At the beginning of The Secret Of The Grain, a subtle and affectionate treatment of a North African family in a French port city, Habib Boufares, a 61-year-old who looks considerably more worn, decides to take his life in a new direction. This decision is astonishing in itself, since people of his age are not supposed to try another career, but after losing his job of 35 years at the shipyard, the entrepreneurial spirit suddenly hits him. Right away, Tunisian-born, French-bred writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche sets the stage for a real crowd-pleaser, especially once he introduces Boufares’ extended family, which includes a tempestuous ex-wife, four children and their kids, a new girlfriend, and her determined, outspoken daughter, played by Hafsia Herzi. Their collective efforts to help Boufares’ open up a couscous restaurant, culminating in a big party intended to attract investors, makes it sounds like Big Night revisited.
But The Secret Of The Grain is more complicated than it sounds, less geared toward uplift than in revealing the fault-lines within this sprawling, multi-generational family and between their immigrant culture and their French hosts. Kechiche cares deeply about his characters and does what he can to preserve their dignity, but he cleverly frustrates convention by having Boufares’ dream recede from his grasp. There’s a great series of scenes midway through the film’s loping, perhaps too-casual 151-minutes that finds Boufares and Herzi mucking their way through French loan and licensing agencies, meeting resistance at every turn. The meetings are cordial and the questions about their shakily sketched-out plans are mostly valid, but the obstacles are clearly race-based, too, and Kechiche gets the balance of these factors precisely right.
The Secret Of The Grain stretches out at the relaxed pace of a seven-course meal, but at the end of it, Kechiche has squeezed the most he can out of percolating dramas within the family and he lets the audience get to know its members without needing to throw them all a subplot. He also gets an electrifying performance out of Herzi, playing a young woman whose tenacity and devotion to Boufares surpasses her mother’s and leads to a stunning gesture at the party. Kechiche doesn’t deliver the payoffs he appears to be setting up, but in a situation this fraught with problems and internal tension, anything tidier would be a cheat.