A dramatically unbalanced pic whose emotional wallop gets somewhat diffused.

In the ambitious social-issues family drama “The Secret of the Grain,” writer-helmer Abdellatif Kechiche uses a Maghrebi emigre’s attempt to open a restaurant as the pretext to explore more profound themes. Choosing not to exploit the drama of the will-he-or-won’t-he storyline, Kechiche opts instead to focus on the complexities of his Franco-Arab characters, using detail to paint a bigger picture. This deliberate choice results in an overlong, dramatically unbalanced pic whose emotional wallop gets somewhat diffused. Nevertheless, it still looks like a top contender for Venice fest prizes and could become a prestige item for boutique distribs offshore.

Tunisian-born, French-raised Kechiche’s previous feature, 2005’s “Games of Love and Chance,” unexpectedly nabbed Cesar awards for film, director and screenplay. “Grain,” like Venice Days entry “Andalucia,” indicates a trend of French helmers from minority communities making serious pics that depart from mainstream rhythms.

Leisurely paced “Grain” sets up a series of contrasts that initially appear digressive, but add up to something greater when one reflects upon the whole. For instance, the pic’s opening moments introduce two male characters (later revealed as father and son) at their respective jobs. Their attitudes toward work provide telling info about their opposing characters and values — and also shape the film’s finale.

Chief among the pic’s underlying themes is the impotence and alienation experienced by men of the emigre generation, who still don’t feel completely at home, are unable to sustain their traditional patriarchal roles and can’t relate to their French-born children. In comparison, North African women of all generations are depicted as active and resourceful, making effective, albeit painful sacrifices for their loved ones.

The story unfolds in the decaying port town of Sete, in southern France. Home to a substantial immigrant population, it’s a place where latent racism surfaces in offhand remarks from the petit-bourgeoisie.

Quiet, care-worn Slimane (Habib Boufares), 61, has been let go from the shipyard where he’s toiled responsibly for 35 years (half of them off the books). Separated from wife Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk) and behind in his alimony payments, Slimane lives in a harborfront hotel owned by his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui). While Slimane feels displaced, both Souad and Latifa seem very much at home and in command of their separate realms.

Souad and Slimane’s offspring, their extended families and friends gather each Sunday at Souad’s to partake of her speciality, fish couscous (the grain of the title). Key info about family history and relationships is revealed through long, sometimes irritating chatter. If Kechiche decides to do additional pruning, protracted discussion of toilet training won’t be missed.

Eldest son Hamid (Abdelhamid Aktouche) is married to a Russian woman and has an infant son. Apparently, his mother and siblings know all about his infidelities with the deputy mayor’s wife, but allow him to get away with it.

Strangely missing in a film with a surfeit of dinner-table conversation is any discussion about Slimane’s desire to open a restaurant. When he and Rym look at a boat he’s acquired for this purpose, it comes as something of a surprise.

Later, a conversation among Slimane’s friends provides extensive exposition of other important plot points that seem to have been lost to an earlier edit: Auds learn that Slimane will host a special dinner on the boat, cooked by Souad, and that Latifa feels humiliated. This dinner comprises the pic’s attenuated final section, in which all themes and characters come together. Additional editing here would sharpen the impact.

Entire ensemble cast is strong, with Hafsia Herzi a standout as Latifa’s bright, outspoken teen daughter Rym, whom Slimane cares for as much as he does his own extended clan. Sharp lensing by Lubomir Bakchev provides a docu feel.

The Secret of the Grain

France

Production

A Pathe Distribution (in France) release of a Hirsch, Pathe Renn production, in association with France 2 Cinema. (International sales: Pathe Distribution, Paris). Produced by Claude Berri. Executive producer, Pierre Grunstein. Directed, written by Abdellatif Kechiche.

Crew

Camera (color), Lubomir Bakchev; editors, Ghalya Lacroix, Camille Toubkis; production designer, Benoit Barouh; costume designer, Maria Beloso Hall; sound (Dolby Digital), Nicolas Waschkowski, Olivier Laurent, Eric Legarcon, Eric Armbruster, Jean-Paul Hurier; associate producer, Nathalie Rheims; assistant director, Carlos da Fonseca Parsotam; casting, Monya Galby. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 3, 2007. Running time: 151 MIN.

With

Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Faridah Benkhetache, Abdelhamid Aktouche, Bouraouia Marzouk, Alice Houri, Cyril Favre, Leila D'Issernio, Abdelkader Djeloulli, Bruno Lochet, Olivier Lousta, Sami Zitouni, Sabrina Ouazani, Mohamed Benabdeslem, Hatika Karaoui, Henri Rodriguez, Nadia Taouil.
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