Keeping the Faith

Stewart Oksenhorn
Omar Sharif stars in the title role of the French film "Monsieur Ibrahim," showing at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday through Monday. Roger Arpajou photo.

“I am happy because I know what’s in my Quran.”

In these times of religion-fueled terrorism, the words sound like the last statement of a suicide bomber, about to kill and maim his way into heaven.

Given the current hostile world climate, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that religion – yes, even Islam – can be a source of peace, generosity and tolerance. Which makes the sweet French film “Monsieur Ibrahim” a most timely arrival.

The Ibrahim of the title is the antithesis of a suicide bomber. He is someone who affirms and boosts life at every turn. Played by Omar Sharif – in a triumphant return to cinema for the 72-year-old actor – Ibrahim is a grocery store owner in early 1960s Paris with a constant gleam in his eye, and a soul as deep as the sea. Ibrahim knows adversity: He is known in the Jewish neighborhood that is home to his small shop as “the Arab” (despite the fact that he is Turkish). His beloved wife has died years before. He works every day for long hours in his drab, cramped store, spending most of his time sitting on a stool behind a counter.

Yet, as Ibrahim says, he is happy because he knows what’s in his Quran. And his is no self-satisfied, exclusive brand of happiness, available only to those who think and believe as he does. Through his Quran, Ibrahim has learned true magnanimity.

When Moses (Pierre Boulanger), a sullen Jewish teen from the neighborhood, starts shoplifting from the grocery store, Ibrahim sees not trouble, but opportunity. Ibrahim has apparently known Moses for years, and is familiar with his circumstances: a departed mother, a cruel father, little guidance in the world. Ibrahim sees that what Moses needs is a surrogate father, and he answers as if God himself whispered in his ear and told him this was his calling. When Ibrahim, with marvelous calm and patience, tells Moses he would rather have him steal from his store than someone else’s, it is a moment of such paternal tenderness that we know just where the relationship is headed. Soon enough, Moses’ father has exited the picture, Ibrahim gives the boy the nickname “Momo” – which neatly splits the difference between Moses and Mohammed – and a fresh life has begun.

Newly enlightened, Momo begins to emerge. Instead of looking for sexual thrills from the street prostitutes, he enters a stumbling but honest relationship with his like-aged neighbor, Myriam (Lola Naymark). Ibrahim teaches Momo life’s simple tricks, like the value of smiling, and engages him in deeper philosophical questions, and the boy’s natural charm and goodness become apparent.

Perhaps most critical in this relationship is the lack of – even disparaging of – textual dogma. When Ibrahim has a beer at an outdoor cafe, Momo questions his religious practices: Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol. Ibrahim explains that he is a Sufi, part of a mystical order of Islam that stresses inner religion over legalisms. “It’s not a disease. It’s a way of thinking,” says Ibrahim. He then adds, in a comment that may be a subtle reference to contemporary conditions: “Although some ways of thinking are diseases too.”

Despite Ibrahim’s oft-professed love of the Quran, he tells Momo that when one seeks wisdom, one doesn’t consult a book. Wisdom is better found by talking to another person. It’s a reassuring view, given how much violence has been justified by what people have found in books.

Director François Dupeyron has made a critical commentary on religion without making a religious-themed movie. Adapting the film from Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novella “Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran” (“Mr. Ibrahim and the flowers of the Quran,” which is also the title of the film in its French release), Dupeyron tells a full-bodied, universal story. “Monsieur Ibrahim” examines the spiritual workings of its title character, works well as a coming-of-age story, sheds light on sex and romance, youth and aging. Stylistically, it hints at the French New Wave. The soul music soundtrack is a treat. Yes, the use of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” may be unsubtle, but at least it’s a fabulous song.

The film returns Omar Sharif to the spotlight, while transforming him gracefully from matinee idol to aged actor supreme. (He won France’s Cesar Award for best actor for his role here.) It also, possibly, introduces us to a significant newcomer in Boulanger, who kept reminding me of a young John Cusack. And “Monsieur Ibrahim” conveys, quietly but convincingly, ideas about religion, tolerance and brotherhood that the world could really use about now.

Not bad for 92 minutes of entertainment.

“Monsieur Ibrahim” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Saturday through Monday, April 17-19, at 7:30 p.m.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.