Because this story is so intent on making the adoption of a young Jewish boy
by an older Muslim man plausible, characters and situation had to be
contrived to clear away logical and cultural impediments. Despite questions
of credibility, director Fran‡ois Depeyron achieves more of what he aimed to
do than his underwritten screenplay would seem to justify.
It's a Paris neighborhood for the underclass, a place where prostitutes take
up their posts along the street and where young Moses (Pierre Boulanger in a
first time role) watches them ply their trade from his modest apartment where
he lives with his father (Gilbert Melik). Instead of wanting the latest
boardgame or bicycle he's seen in a store, this 13-year old develops a strong
hankering for one of the women on the street. Driven by hormonal awakenings,
he breaks open his kiddie bank and bravely offers what it contained to the
lady of his dreams. She turns him down, but he's taken for deflowering by
another streetwalker with a more generous attitude.
Having accomplished the task of establishing him manhood, he returns to his
apartment to greet his morose and distant father with dinner after a drab day
of menial work in an office. Needing something for the meal, dad sends Moses
out to "the Arab", who turns out to be Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), the
proprieter of the neighborhood general store. As Ibrahim explains to the boy
that he's not Arab, he bestows on him the more familiar, affectionate name,
Momo. And, as he forgives Momo his bit of shoplifting, we and Momo recognize
the storekeeper's gentle nature and uncritical warmth.
This is in stark contrast to the callous treatment Momo receives at home,
where he's subjected to constant criticism in harsh, demanding tones. More
than once, the demeaning treatment by his father chases Momo out of the
house. Having been abandoned by his mother and never knowing his older
brother, he turns more and more to Ibrahim, who provides a needed comfort and
a growing emotional attachment. Momo readily submits to Ibrahim's lessons
about life, running a store, and his undemanding reference to his Koran.
Though Ibrahim is a Muslim, he's not a fundamentalist, allowing an unusual
bond to develop despite the religious divide. His gilded book, always at
Ibrahim's side, is one of mystery and beauty to the wide-eyed Jewish
Therein, we have the central message of the piece. When people are open and
curious, when humanity overrides repressive mandates of religion, cross
cultural ties may flourish.
The relationship pays off when dad loses his job, abandons Momo, and commits
suicide under the wheels of a train, shifting the emphasis now to the more
demanding question of a teenager's survival without a parent. In an
entrepreneurial spirit, if not a shortsighted one, the orphan hocks
whatever's in the apartment for another taste of the streetwalker's favors.
But the yearning of most importance is the relationship with his older
How convenient to put this match together by creating a father who is morose,
maladjusted, a borderline sociopath and to be conveniently taken off the
scoreboard. This contrivance might be overlooked because of the essential
positives in the package, which include unique moments of caring and a coming
of age in unexpected circumstances. Its handling of religious themes and
racial barriers are designed to avoid any hint of controversy or
Both actors fit their parts well, with Boulanger audaciously personable and
Sharif endearing and patient. As an elder statesman of the acting craft
Sharif is realizing his maturity with engaging depth and consummate skill.
He nearly wins us over through a last act that abandons drama while it treats
us to the new father-son relationship on a road trip. But the extended
sentimentality of Depeyron's idealization is too much even for the actors'
gifts as the story reaches for poignancy while closing in cloudy ambiguity
with a melancholy aftertaste.
~~ Jules Brenner