Michel Boujenah’s full-bodied (in every sense of the term) and fearless lead performance dominates “Le Nombril du monde,” an engrossing period drama also known by the more wieldy, less idiomatic title “I, Bajou.” By any name, it’s a first-rate achievement by writer-director Ariel Zeitoun that will doubtless enjoy prominent exposure on global fest circuit, and might also earn respectable coin in select urban markets.
Set in the French protectorate of Tunisia from the early 1930s through the postwar period, pic focuses on Bajou (Boujenah), an obsessively driven Jew who rises from sharecropper to entrepreneur through dint of hard work, mathematical skills and occasionally sheer ruthlessness. Always mindful of his precarious status in an Arab-dominated culture, and quietly resentful of remarks about his enormous bulk, he slowly gains power and influence, if not respect, after moving to the capital city of Tunis.
Along with his hotheaded cousin Marcel (Thomas Langmann), Bajou joins the Resistance movement during the German Occupation — motivated as much by economics as patriotism. Later, he decides to claim the beautiful Habiba (Delphine Forest), daughter of the now-bankrupt landowner who once employed Bajou, as a wife. That Habiba doesn’t want to marry him, and already has a lover , is of little consequence to Bajou. He pays off Habiba’s father, drives the lover out of town and settles down to what he thinks will be a lifetime of domestic bliss.
The most impressive thing about Boujenah’s multilayered performance is the way he manages to retain some audience sympathy, without any obvious pandering or soft-pedaling, even when Bajou’s being most selfish. The character is complex and deeply flawed, yet also tremendously loyal and, in his own way, deeply in love with Habiba. All he really wants is a family. Trouble is, he will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. Boujenah’s brilliant portrayal shines a mercilessly bright light on every dark corner of Bajou’s soul.
But even though he’s the main attraction, Boujenah isn’t the whole show. “I, Bajou” is as rich in incident, character and ambiguity as a classic novel, with just a touch of Pagnol’s “The Baker’s Wife” thrown in for good measure. (Zeitoun slyly acknowledges the influence during one of Habiba’s trips to the local cinema). Despite a certain choppiness to the continuity in the final reels, the narrative drive is consistently compelling for pic’s nearly 2 1/2-hour running time.
As Habiba, Forest evidences impressive range and depth, making a persuasive progression from hate to resignation to a kind of love. More strong support is offered by Langmann as Marcel, Marie-Josee Nat as Bajou’s stern mother and Roger Hanin as the former landowner who sells his daughter to Bajou.
Bountiful period flavor is provided by costumer Edith Vesperini, production designer Bernard Vezat and cinematographer Eric Gauthier. Makeup artist Dominique Colladant deserves credit for deftly aging Bajou and other characters.