First, here's a word from Omar Sharif, speaking candidly on the trajectory of his recent career:
"It is terrifying to have to do the dialogue from bad scripts, to face a director who does not know what he is doing, in a film so bad that it is not even worth exploring."
Well, then! Fortunately for ol' Doc Zhivago's peace of mind, his turn as the title character of Monsieur Ibrahim constitutes a break in the entropy. As a saintly Muslim grocer in the Paris of the early 1960s, Sharif sparkles, twinkles and does all those other things that elder statesmen of cinema are supposed to be doing at this point in their careers. Tastemakers appear to agree: The film was nominated for a Golden Globe in the "Best Foreign-Language Film" category. That might be occasion to celebrate, if not for the suspicion that the picture was singled out for all the wrong attributes.
Better when it's resisting the need to be about something, the movie starts strong, showing how the developing understanding between Ibrahim and a neighbor boy (Pierre Boulanger) supplants the troubled teen's relationship with his emotional wreck of a father (Gilbert Melki). As much the kid's story as Ibrahim's, the film (directed by Francois Dupeyeron from a stage play by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) relies heavily on the young Boulanger's personal magnetism as his character navigates the possibilities of "manhood," getting the upper hand on his tyrannical pop and breaking his piggy bank to fund an instant education at the hands of the local whores. Such urges are comprehended innately by Ibrahim, an incredibly indulgent Sufi whose ability to identify the boy's every inner yearning borders on the psychic. Secure in his world and his God, the grocer is the best mentor any boy living on the Rue Bleue could want.
Here's Sharif again, from the movie's press kit: "If Ibrahim acts pedantically or starts to give `the child` lessons in morality, we would be in danger of making the most annoying film ever." It's a tribute to the actor's abilities (and those of his young co-star, of course) that annoyance remains safely at bay for a good hour of this 95-minute character piece, which dallies with such promising subplots as a fitful romance with an inscrutable neighbor girl. But in the end, there are just too many metaphorical land mines buried in the story and waiting to go off. The teen, you see, is Jewish -- he's even named Moses, for heaven's sake -- and the opportunity for an underbaked case study of cross-cultural enrichment proves irresistible to Dupeyeron. To carry it off, the filmmaker effects an abrupt change of locale at the one-hour mark, reducing the movie to a snail-paced travelogue that robs Ibrahim of his essential outsider's status. Hints of some final narrative twist keep dropping, but in the end, Monsieur Ibrahim ventures nothing more than a timid lesson that we're all part of the same human family, no matter our outward differences. That's not annoying, exactly -- just good and trite.