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Role Model

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A 14-year-old boy steals food and other items from the local grocery store. In an American movie, the proprietor would probably pull out a shotgun and blow the perpetrator away rather than bothering to call the police. Or perhaps the grocer would get blown away because he was too slow to go for his own piece. But in Francois Dupeyron's Monsieur Ibrahim, the proprietor tells the thief, "Better that you steal from me and not somewhere you might get in real trouble." Such forbearance is all the more remarkable because the teenager is a Jew and the aging store owner is a Muslim.

Adapted by the director from Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's novel, Monsieur Ibrahim is the story of the unlikely friendship between a lonely boy (Pierre Boulanger) named Momo (short for Moses) and an old Turk named Ibrahim (Omar Sharif). It is 1963, and the world hasn't turned as ugly and unforgiving as it will with time. Momo's mother (Isabelle Renauld) abandoned her husband and child before her son was of school age. Momo's father (Gilbert Melki) is a white collar functionary, embittered by life. They live in the working-class Parisian neighborhood of Rue Bleue, which is populated largely by Jews. Dad has put his son in charge of the domestic duties. Momo does the shopping, cleaning and cooking, but the best he can expect is no comment from his father. Complaint, demand or nothing.

Meanwhile, Momo has the usual urges and contradictory impulses of a boy his age. He shows his initial interest in a local red-headed girl, Myriam (Lola Naymark), by dousing her with water. He also breaks open his piggy bank to acquire the 35 francs he needs to purchase the services of Sylvie (Anne Suarez), one of the prostitutes who, like Irma La Douce, openly plies her trade across the street. Thereafter, Momo begins to shoplift so that he can spend his father's grocery money on a series of Sylvie's colleagues. That brings him more directly under Ibrahim's nurturing gaze. And the old man teaches him more legal approaches for stretching his food supply, few of which Dad would like if he ever figured them out. Because he pays attention to the boy, Ibrahim gradually becomes a more important parental figure than Momo's blood father. Ibrahim praises and encourages his young friend rather than ignore or find fault with him. He tells the boy to smile, whereas Dad scowls that Momo needs braces. Ibrahim has discussions with the teen that lead Momo to read his history and geography books with a curiosity he hasn't heretofore known.

Along the way, Monsieur Ibrahim gently urges its message of diversity and cultural respect. Everyone in the Rue Bleue refers to Ibrahim as "the Arab," and he routinely accedes to this designation even though Turks aren't Arabic. Momo's family is Jewish, but he doesn't seem to have much religious training. Ibrahim, on the other hand, is a serious Muslim who quotes freely and often from the Koran and even gives Momo a copy of Islam's holy book. Critically, though, Ibrahim isn't trying to convert Momo. In fact, a scene late in the film establishes the old man's reverence for an array of world religions, Judaism and Christianity among them. Ibrahim thinks that religion can provide wisdom and inner peace. But he tells Momo that he's a Sufi and defines himself as someone "opposed to religious legalism." In short, he's just about the opposite of the angry radical fundamentalist that we meet most often in the Muslim world courtesy of the international media since Sept. 11, 2001.

Monsieur Ibrahim is very well served by its two central players. In his 70s now, Sharif still has those imposing eyes that were so memorable in their different service for his characters in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Time has taken its toll on his figure and face, but he's still a charismatic man. You buy Ibrahim's influence over Momo without a moment's hesitation. And Boulanger is a star in the making; he's got good looks and a hint of self-assurance balanced with an air of vulnerability. Travolta had it. So did Elvis.

Monsieur Ibrahim isn't long on plot. It's closing half hour gives itself over to a kind of elaborate and not entirely lucid metaphor as Ibrahim and Momo buy a red convertible and set out to drive from France to Turkey, a feat improbable if not impossible 40 years ago. But this picture exudes such a compelling sweetness of spirit that we can't help but reflect on how our world has gone so wrong in the four decades since its setting. The notion that a Muslim and Jew today could have the kind of relationship depicted here, even in Paris, seems almost preposterous. So this movie is ultimately a remonstrance, an example of what might have been.

Grocery store owner Ibrahim (Omar Sharif, right) shares his wisdom with young Momo (Pierre Boulanger) in Monsieur Ibrahim.
  • Grocery store owner Ibrahim (Omar Sharif, right) shares his wisdom with young Momo (Pierre Boulanger) in Monsieur Ibrahim.

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