France’s long-standing “Jewish problem” is intertwined with its more recent “Muslim problem”—a fast-growing Arab and Islamic minority that many think poses a threat to the national identity. In the midst of this crisis, Monsieur Ibrahim arrives, to sow a bit of hope and much confusion. The venerable Omar Sharif plays the title role, a grizzled, mysterious Sufi who runs the corner store in a working-class Parisian neighborhood. It’s the early 1960s—the music blaring from transistor radios never sounded so good, and the whores on the Rue Bleue never looked so chic. Sixteen-year-old Momo (Pierre Boulanger) is a connoisseur of both; they offer momentary relief from life with his taciturn, gloomy father (Gilbert Melki). Momo regularly buys (or shoplifts) the groceries for their sad little household at Ibrahim’s place. One day the wise and world-weary Sufi teaches this Jewish boy to smile disarmingly while stealing, and is soon dispensing off-kilter lessons from the Koran about appreciating life’s small pleasures on Sunday walks around the arrondissement.
“What does it mean to be a Jew?” Momo begins his religious disquisition, before offering his own grim assessment. “For my dad, it means being depressed all day. For me, it’s just something that prevents me from being something else.” Not for long, though. When Momo’s father finally abandons him, Ibrahim’s Koran lessons begin to take effect. France’s Jewish and Muslim problems dissolve into a kinder, gentler Islam.
Director François Dupeyron’s previous film, The Officer’s Ward, was a strange World War I drama about a wounded soldier’s facial disfigurement. Here he shows the same attention to physiognomy and period detail. Momo’s crimson shirt or his favorite streetwalker’s polka-dot green dress float by like intoxicating visions. Dupeyron is attuned to the nuances of youthful passion and its dashed hopes. And he’s got rhythm—in Monsieur Ibrahim, he captures the beat of rock ‘n’ roll hipsters and (in one memorable sequence) a trio of whirling dervishes.
But his element is la France profonde, and here he’s pretty far out of it. Monsieur Ibrahim is unusual in its ambition to pose deep spiritual questions, but its enticing surfaces—including the beautiful working girls and Isabelle Adjani’s surprise cameo as a Bardot-esque starlet—are the best thing about it. Sharif’s smoothly professional performance emphasizes Ibrahim’s warmth and humanity. His murky mysticism occasionally touches the sublime, but is more often of the dime-store variety. And Dupeyron’s portrait of Jewish home life is weirdly gruesome. Momo’s mother is simply missing in action; his remarkably penny-pinching father (an anti-Semitic cliché) is no role model. These latter aspects of the story trouble the calm waters of metaphysical reflection and mar a film of considerable grace.