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Omar Never Dies

Sharif is still the Arab world's cultural emissary to America in 'Monsieur Ibrahim'

By Richard von Busack

In France, Francois Dupeyron's film Monsieur Ibrahim is known as Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs de Coran. Apparently, the phrase about "the Flowers of the Koran" was considered a little too scary for America. France has festering anti-Arab prejudices, too, but the film's appeal to brotherhood is obviously timely in America.

In the title role: a 71-year-old movie star who, for more than four decades, has been a liaison between the Arab world and the West. Ever since Lawrence of Arabia, where he played the piratical Ali, Omar Sharif has been the Arab, as far as the West was concerned. Born in Alexandria, of a Lebanese and Syrian background, Sharif is exotic but not too exotic; he's liquid-eyed and dashing, philosophical, grave yet never unbending. And he has the unruffled ease that's the mark of the old-time movie star. (In real life, Sharif may be as well known as a champion bridge player as an actor.) He's not pompous, however; Sharif even went in for a little modern slapstick; he spun off from the joke in Goldfinger about the "pressing engagement" when he waddled into the room as the living victim of a junkyard car-crusher in the Zucker/Abrahams satire Top Secret.

In Hidalgo, marred as it was by gimcrack, back-lot Arab stereotypes, Sharif was the sunnier face of Arabia: a cultured, man-of-the-world sheik, a fancier of all things Western. In anti-Arab times like these, you could say Sharif's work is never done. When the wartime rhetoric heats up, when a general can spout off about his god being bigger than Allah, such little things as Persian rugs, bad translations of the Rubiyat and a film featuring Omar Sharif's grave friendliness may open hearts a little.

In the title role, Sharif is more dry, more modest, but the same kind of Arab mensch he always plays, despite hints of a rascality that threatens to break out. He plays Ibrahim, a corner-shop owner in the Second Arrondissement, near the Jewish quarter in Paris. It's about 1962. Ibrahim's selfless kindness reaches out to Momo, the son (Pierre Boulanger) of a negligent absentee father. Catching him shoplifting from the store, the old man forgives him and sets him straight. The movie unfolds in a series of chats between Momo and Ibrahim, who reminisces about his native Anatolia.

At first, the son is in quiet war against his depressed father. He tries desperately to save up some money to visit one of the enticing local prostitutes, even if it means serving his dad cat food in the place of pâté, or watering his Beaujolais. After his father disappears from the picture, the kid survives by selling his dad's books. Much of the movie coalesces around such familiar coming-of-age fare, even if presented against the coolest imaginable background.

Dupeyron soaks up the atmosphere of nostalgic Paris, with its jazz drifting out of windows, its disdainful prostitutes loitering, and sports cars so small you could put them in your pocket. Surely Godard must be filming around the corner, and Isabelle Adjani turns up in a cameo as a glamorous slumming movie star. Eventually, Ibrahim adopts the boy as his son, and buys a car with the cash he's saved up. The two drive to Turkey, where Momo gets to visit, tourist-like, the most aesthetic side of Muslim culture. The dervishes, the Sufi wisdom. The theme is the soul ballad "Why Can't We Live Together"--anachronistic, but appropriate.

So Monsieur Ibrahim is made with the best intentions--a sweet, harmless movie. Yet it's underpowered, and its wistfulness tends to evaporate the movie. What's left is the impression the faintly smiling, eminently lovable Sharif makes. Monsieur Ibrahim is seemingly destined strictly for an older crowd who recall their daydreams about the spiciness of Sharif, just as their grandmothers yearned for Valentino.

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From the March 31-April 7, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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