On the surface, “Monsieur Ibrahim” bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1977 Oscar-winner “Madame Rosa”: the new film is about an elderly Muslim who cares for an abandoned Jewish boy while the older film is about an elderly Jewish woman who cares for an abandoned Muslim boy. But the two films actually have little in common. “Madame Rosa” is a warm, passionate, beautifully-crafted classic while “Monsieur Ibrahim” is a piece of slop.
“Monsieur Ibrahim” takes place in the Rue Bleue section of Paris in 1963, which seems to be home to a large number of prostitutes and Orthodox Jews (don’t ask who did the urban planning there). Moses, nicknamed Momo, is a 15 year old Jewish boy who lives with his uncaring father in a cramped apartment; the boy’s mother disappeared so long ago he barely recalls her. Momo apparently doesn’t have any friends or special interests, except to ogle the lovely hookers who work outside of his apartment.
Somehow or other, Momo is befriended by Monsieur Ibrahim, the kindly old Turk who runs the local grocery store. Why Monsieur Ibrahim would befriend him is curious, since Momo regularly shoplifts and is fairly obnoxious (imagine a French version of Scott Baio’s Chachi and you have an idea what he is like). But Monsieur Ibrahim isn’t exactly on the level. He advises Momo to feed his father cat food and stale bread for dinner and then encourages the lad to read the Koran (just what every good Jewish boy should be reading, oui?). When Momo’s father loses his job, he abandons the kid and then commits suicide. Kindly old Monsieur Ibrahim immediately adopts Momo, buys a red convertible, and then drives with Momo from Paris to Turkey (somehow getting through Albania, which was no mean feat for 1963). The last half hour of the film has this odd couple engaged in a travelogue visit through Turkey, and only the most naive audience member will not expect the manner in which the journey ends. Film Threat readers, however, will immediately notice locations used in the production of “The Turkish Star Wars” during the course of this part of the movie.
The only reason anyone would bother with this film is the delightfully hammy performance by Omar Sharif in the title role. This is his first substantial starring role since “The Tamarind Seed” of 1974 and he pours everything into it. In fact, he pours too much into it: he rolls his eyes with harsh intensity and waves his hands like mad butterflies, giving the physical impression of a deranged Svengali, yet he pops out canned aphorisms with the sagely wisdom of Charlie Chan dropping fortune cookie wisdom. It is a ridiculous performance, but Sharif is clearly enjoying himself and it is impossible not to get charmed by its surplus of silliness.
Less should be said about young newcomer Pierre Boulanger, who plays Momo. He is photogenic but he has no talent and he quickly becomes an abrasive presence. Some mention is deserved for Isabelle Adjani in a strange cameo as Brigitte Bardot filming a scene from Goddard’s “Contempt” on Momo’s street. At least the press kit said Adjani is supposed to be Bardot — her excessive costume and make-up seem closer to the extravagant Hollywood billboard queen Angelyne rather than the classic French sex kitten.
For a film that supposedly preaches tolerance, “Monsieur Ibrahim” never bothers to acknowledge little-known history of how Islamic Turkey twice came to the rescue of Europe’s Jews: as a sanctuary for the Spanish Jews expelled from their homeland in 1492 and as a refuge for Eastern European Jews escaping Nazi occupation in the 1940s. Turkey is among the rare European countries (let alone Islamic countries) with no history of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism. Maybe someday an enterprising filmmaker will make a film about this forgotten chapter in Muslim-Jewish relations. It would be a lot more compelling and memorable than the nonsense in “Monsieur Ibrahim.”
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