When the film opens, 16-year-old Momo (Pierre Boulanger) is like a hundred cinematic teenagers before him: young, restless, horny. He looks out his apartment window on Paris' Rue Bleue at one of the countless beautiful prostitutes that troll the narrow street. He dreams of a night with the most exotic among them: a cat-eyed black girl in a green polka dot dress. He is finally driven to break into his piggy bank and make a down payment on his manhood. The black girl isn't game, but he finds a younger Brigitte Bardot look alike who tenderly coaxes him across the cusp.
Momo is prematurely debonair and absurdly handsome with his tiny Elvis pout and jet-black hair. But like Antoine Doinel, the alienated teenage hero of Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Momo has been supremely gypped by the adults in his life. His mother is nowhere to be seen and his father is a constipated tyrant who Momo has no hope of ever pleasing.
In a slow, natural progression, Momo begins to transfer his desire for fatherly love from his own deadbeat dad to an unlikely mentor: the Arab grocer Monsieur Ibrahim (a still captivating, sparkly-eyed Omar Sharif) whose tiny store services the local working folk.
And the film ripens, too, from a superficial coming of age tale into a tender, pleasantly low-key buddy film.
Ibrahim's lyrical, philosophical -- and often illogical -- musings on life, women and the Koran give Momo a kind of spiritual nourishment his grim, critical father can't. And so the Arab shopkeeper and the Jewish budding ladies' man become confidantes. While Ibrahim offers Momo a more ideal and loving father than his biological one, Momo offers Ibrahim the opportunity to be more than an anonymous Arab grocer. He becomes a teacher and a mentor -- what he has learned over his lifetime suddenly seems more vital when he's passing it on to the boy.
Their union comes with some degree of contrivance -- the Arab man and Jewish boy is not an unconscious or entirely naturalistic match. But it is true that there is often something of the exotic that makes such friendships work in real life. While Momo seems unfamiliar with prejudice, there are many indications that Arab Ibrahim has seen his share. That attention to anti-Muslim discrimination gives Monsieur Ibrahim a contemporary feel, making it undeniably a film of our own time.
In one of the film's most enjoyable interludes, Ibrahim buys a red convertible and the pair take off for a driving tour to Ibrahim's Turkish motherland. The deeper they move into the Middle East the more soulful Ibrahim becomes. Soon the bubble gum pop and coming of age cliches that seemed to define the film are traded for something deeper, and Monsieur Ibrahim mellows into the oddest and most satisfying kind of buddy film. Momo's coming of age becomes all the more poignant with Ibrahim as a compassionate, devoted companion beside him, guiding him to adulthood even as he watches his own mortality fade.
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