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Tunisian-French Patriarch Cooks up Drama in'Secret of the Grain'

French-Tunisian writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain” is a small film that’s full of energy — and running time. But it doesn’t seem long at all. Kechiche (“Games of Love and Chance,” “Blame It on Voltaire”) dwells on everyday details in the lives of ordinary Franco-Arabs. The accumulation of these threads is weaved into a tapestry rich with realism, socio-political commentary, emotional significance and humor.

In Sète, a French city off the Mediterranean, 61-year-old Tunisian immigrant Slimane (Habib Boufares) has been laid off from his shipyard job after 35 years. He’s the seemingly reluctant patriarch of a sprawling extended family that includes four children; grandkids; an ex-wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk); plus a lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui); and her daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi), effectively a stepdaughter he loves like his own children.

His ex-wife, children and grandchildren live in a high-rise, where a regular Sunday’s feast features his ex-wife’s famous fish couscous. She leaves a plate for Slimane, even though he doesn’t attend. He eats it in the spartan room he rents in the working-class hotel owned by Latifa.

Slimane, with the assistance of Rym, comes up with the idea to turn an old boat into a restaurant serving fish couscous cooked by his ex-wife. When seeking a loan, their sketchy plans are met with polite but firm resistance at the bank. They don’t fare much better at City Hall when trying to obtain a permit. And Latifa is insulted by Slimane wanting to use Souad’s cooking. To overcome the obstacles and convince his skeptics, Slimane plans a proof-of-concept party on the boat. At first, it seems like a smashing success, but then...

At the 2007 Venice Film Festival, “The Secret of the Grain” won five prizes including the FIPRESCI Prize and Special Jury Prize. At the 2008 César Awards, it took home four trophies including Best Film.

The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mulet) (French and Arabic with subtitles; 151 min.) Opens Fri., Feb. 6 Landmark’s E Street Cinema 4.5 out of 5 stars

Messy ‘Class’ François Bégaudeau, working with director Laurent Cantet (“Time Out,” “Human Resources”) and Robin Campillo, adapted the screenplay for “The Class” from his best-selling novel “Entre les Murs (Between the Walls)” about his life as a junior high school teacher in Paris. In the film, Bégaudeau plays François Marin, a 37-year-old who’s been teaching for four years. The actors playing the multicultural, working-class students were chosen from another junior high school in the 20th arrondissement in far eastern Paris.

They spent a year in workshops with Bégaudeau and Cantet developing the particulars of the story and the characters. So Bégaudeau is playing a role that’s not quite himself, but it’s close enough to seem very real. Ditto for the students playing characters not quite themselves. Three high-definition cameras are used throughout the film: one for the teacher, one for the students, and one for whatever action might happen at the side of the classroom.

With its nuanced details and verisimilitude, “The Class” transcends the traditional schoolroom movie like “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or “Dead Poets Society.” Real life is untidy, and so is “The Class.” That’s meant in a good way. One might expect Bégaudeau to create his character, based on himself, as a completely heroic persona — as might be expected in an American mainstream movie.

But although he’s definitely caring and dedicated, Marin is a teacher who shows his flaws — and they have negative consequences. Marin challenges his students, and they challenge him. And the confrontation can be messy. Initially, “The Class” is more of a character study. The plot builds slowly, until all of a sudden, almost by surprise, the drama is thrust upon the audience.

“The Class” won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and opened the 2008 New York Film Festival.

The Class (Entre les Murs) (French with subtitles; 128 min.; scope) Opens Fri., Feb. 20 Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema Landmark’s E Street Cinema 4.5 out of 5 stars

‘Waltz’ with War

Israeli writer-director Ari Folman has created a singularly unique vision with “Waltz with Bashir,” which straddles three specialized movie categories as an animated documentary in a foreign language (Hebrew). (It won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film; the Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave it Best Animation; and it gathered six Israeli Film Academy awards, including Best Film.)

The film starts out with a pack of 26 wild dogs running through the streets of Tel Aviv toward the home of Folman’s friend Boaz. That’s a dream Boaz has been having for two and a half years, one precipitated by events during his service in the 1982 war in Lebanon. As Boaz recounts the dream, Folman realizes he himself doesn’t have any recollection of his own time in the war.

This is particularly troublesome because that includes the Sept. 16-18 slaughter of up to 3,000 Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia. The killings were nominally in revenge for the assassination of newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel. By Israel’s own findings, the Israeli Army is considered to be a complicit accomplice in allowing the massacre to happen.

“Waltz with Bashir” is Folman’s attempt to recreate his memories from the war. He goes about this task by having conversations with his fellow soldiers at the time, who are now flung around the world as far away as Amsterdam, where one opened falafel shops. Folman taped interviews with nine men. (Seven speak in their own voices. Two are dubbed by actors.) The tapes were edited as if they comprised a normal documentary. Then the edited footage was given to the animators.

The process of animation is particularly useful in transporting the viewer back in time more than 20 years ago. The subject on screen grows younger, generally thinner with less balding and graying. As (often hallucinatory) dreams and memories are recalled, they are presented on screen. As the recollections are suspect, they aren’t a totally reliable account of history, but this is never the intention. Carried throughout all the interviews, the effect is an unforgettable questioning of the truth, with equally powerful revelations.

Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir) (Hebrew with subtitles; 87 min.) AMC Loews Cineplex Shirlington Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema Landmark’s E Street Cinema 4.5 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.

National Gallery of Art “Barcelona Masters: José Luis Guerín and Pere Portabella” (Feb. 1-28) features the work of two Spanish directors who according to the National Gallery “share a genius for making uniquely imaginative works of uncommon breadth and beauty.” (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film

AFI Silver “The Films of Max Ophüls” (Feb. 1-March 5) showcases work by the German-born auteur made in Germany, the United States and France. (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/silver

Goethe-Institut “A Deeper Look 2009: Showcasing Film|Neu directors and their inspiration” (Feb. 2-March 9) brings back talent from the festival talking about their favorite films and showing more of their work. (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm

Freer Gallery of Art The Freer’s 13th annual festival of Iranian films runs through Feb. 22, closing with Dariush Mehrjui’s latest film, “Santouri: The Music Man” (Feb. 20 and 22). (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014