‘The Secret Of The Grain’: Best Of 2008

December 28, 2008

How is it that the best movie of 2008 came out in the U.S. about a week before the start of 2009?

The film, “The Secret of the Grain,” from French Tunisian director Abdel Kechiches, tells the story of a family of French North Africans struggling to keep their family together as hard economic times unveil new challenges to their dreams of living as equals in French society.

It’s a political film if you want it to be, it’s a film about the pleasures of women and food, if you want it to be. But what makes “The Secret of the Grain” a landmark of synthetic verite cinema, a movie that feels disarmingly and uncannily like a documentary, is an absolutely absorbing (perhaps “granular”) level of detail that reveals the director’s extraordinary sensitivity to the microscopic social conflicts that take place at the intersection of work, citizenship, and love. The film shows how economic “uncertainty” functions as a catalyst for a general questioning of globalization and the assumptions of a culturally diverse society. It has a special sense of urgency, and at times feels as profoundly American as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

That is to say, it’s a raw piece of work and not easy to watch at times. Very long scenes that feel like torture if you’re paying too close attention to plot challenge 140-character length attention spans. It relishes in the poetry of celluloid that would end up on a prudent documentarians cutting room floor. It begs audiences to settle in to a different pace of life, get bored a little, and stop asking: “What’s happening?” It’s not an easy thing to ask of an audience, but the pleasures are infinitely greater if you can, as in any movie, immerse yourself completely in its world.

2008 was a year when one could become addicted, sometimes unrepentently so, to social media. E-mail, Facebook, twitter could be with you wherever you were: in a doctor’s office, on a blind date, or in a movie theater. That technology could keep us all connected was part of its fascination. But does it keep people connected? Or does it distract and disrupt from those who grace our presence? In “The Secret of the Grain,” sometimes it seems like the only pieces of modern technology are a boat, a moped, and a cell phone, and they are each the causes of both connection and disruption. No moody non-diagetic music interferes with the course of events, making all the more dramatic a continuous performance during the final dinner party by a traditional Arabic band made up of characters in the film. The source of what entertains is in the movie’s world — improvised and empathic to the drama swirling around it.

All this obsessive detail ultimately forces the audience to question the conventions that distinguish documentary from fiction film. The actors come across naturally, with imperfect body shapes that hold the camera’s loving gaze like any Hollywood sex pot. As a result, the film succeeds in breaking down some barriers that typically separate subject from object, inviting the audience to relax in the company of this family that is disconnected – both by force and by choice – from the society that marginalizes them. Without spoiling the film, disconnection from each other ultimately leads to the family’s downfall. Nothing is explained, and, as in life, we are left with unresolved plot lines, loose ends, and unanswerable questions.

No film fascinated me in quite so many ways in 2008 as “The Secret of the Grain.” [A]

This review was cross-posted at The Playlist.

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