Movie: I've never been a big fan of religion, organized or not, due to the often incomprehensible manner in which they demand obedience without reason, respect without cause, and typically require subverting my own first hand experiences in favor of mystical practices that seem hardly one step removed from aboriginal practices most of us would scoff at. It doesn't matter if the religion is more traditional like Christianity or one of the obviously get rich quick schemes like Dianetics or Nation of Islam, I find little comfort in the teachings of what usually appear to be charlatans promising me a better afterlife if I just hand over my intellect and do as they say. I recognize that religion was, for the longest time, a variety of moral codes that were used to keep large numbers of people in line and provide them with some guidance in uncertain times but events in the last millennium have proven mankind will subvert such dogma to justify committing numerous acts of inhumanity so I really can't say that I'm all that willing to listen these days. This brings me to a movie tied to religion, the latest release from the independent distribution company Film Movement, called Le Grand Voyage.
The movie is based on the Muslim principle that all proper Muslims must make a pilgrimage to Mecca within their lifetime if they can afford to do so. Mecca, being a hotspot in the Middle East, isn't exactly the most inviting place to non-believers, but it draws millions of pilgrims who almost all preach their faith in a non-violent manner (contrary to the popular press, most practicing Muslims aren't terrorists any more than all practicing Christians don't firebomb abortion clinics). The two principle characters of the movie are Reda, a college age son, and his father, aptly called Father in the show. They live in France so we already know they've suffered something of an exile from their roots with Reda embracing his newfound culture as most youth tend to do. He's preparing to pass his exams, having already failed them once, when dad asks him to drive him to Mecca (something that wouldn't have happened if they lived in Detroit).
Like most dual generation films, neither one understands much of the other and they follow wildly different paths. Reda wants to assimilate into the culture he's grown up in, marry his sweetheart, and settle down in a lifestyle typical of those around him. His father, on the other hand, clings to his beliefs as his life winds down, as many people seem to do in their later years. Having sacrificed much to provide for his family over the years, dad feels the need to complete his obligatory pilgrimage in order to satisfy the Muslim faith he holds so dear. The premise that these two characters can come to a better understanding before the movie ends and learn to respect one another is given center stage although it seemed to be a soft sell along the lines of so many other movies too.
One of the most interesting concepts here was how the two were so at odds during the trip in the cramped little car they had to work with. Anyone who has had to drive with someone they don't really like much will know where I'm coming from and Reda's evolution along the way was the primary draw for me in this regard. I also noticed the father's coming to terms with what his son had become, certainly not a bad kid, if a little immature (as most youthful males are) and this balance made the film interesting for me. Along the way to Mecca, they meet a variety of circumstances and other characters that interact with them, making the show more stimulating than it would've otherwise been. Here's what the back of the DVD cover said about the film as well as the liner notes inside the cover:
"A few weeks before his college entrance exams, Réda (Nicolas Cazale), a young man who lives in the south of France, finds himself obligated to drive his father to Mecca. The wide cultural and generational gap between the two is worsened by their lack of communication. Réda finds it hard to accommodate his father, who demands respect for himself and his pilgrimage. From France, through Italy, Serbia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan to Saudi Arabia, the two embark on a road trip that will change their lives."
Statement of the Intentions of the Filmmaker
"Réda and his father belong to a culture where the dialogue between father and son is difficult, even impossible. The gulf which separates them (generation, culture, language) is made deeper by their status as 'exiles' in France. I made this film to imagine this contact that traveling together makes inevitable. They are removed from their status as father and son and experience an evolution through the voyage. Le Grand Voyage shows us how Réda and his father move from a relationship marked with indifference and hostility to one of recognition of the other that leads to reconciliation. It is necessary for one to accept one's parent – where we come from – in order to accept one's self."
The Genesis of the Project
Le Grand Voyage originates from a personal memory of the director. "I have had this project in mind for a dozen years," explains Ferroukhi. "It turns out that when I was a kid my father would take this voyage in a car and this crazy trip made me fantasize. I said to myself that one day I would have to tell the story of this crazy adventure." Born in the Moroccan city of Kenitra, the director told the story of a young child who had to report on his country of origin in his short film "L'Expose" (1992).
Another Vision of Islam
If Le Grand Voyage deals with a relationship between a father and his son, the director equally deals with ideas concerning Islam. "I wished to tell a human story about to Muslim protagonists in order to stop conveying stereotypes about a fundamentally peaceful and tolerant community." He underlines, "I really wanted to re-humanize a community with the reputation sullied by an extreme minority which uses the religion for political ends."
Nicolas Cazalé confides on this subject: "I felt an extraordinary energy and a love, as if one really heard the heartbeat of Islam. It was understood that this religion is made of love and attention to others. I am glad to have made this film because it gives an image of the Islam which has nothing to do with the image given to us in the media."
Okay, even though I'm not religious, I could respect the give and take nature of the film and the message the director was trying to get across. Further, having lived around numerous folks in the Muslim community, I found the portrayal of the father's beliefs to be a far more accurate description of their demeanor than what you'll find in the latest action adventure movie (let's face it, the stereotypical Muslim in Hollywood films is the terrorist focused solely on killing non-believers, something that is certainly not the most common type in their community). The director obviously felt very close to the material and while a lot of the minor details were lost on this non-believer, I thought he did a great job overall so I'm rating it as Highly Recommended.
Picture: Le Grand Voyage was presented in the original 1.85:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen color it was filmed in by director Ismael Ferroukhi. While obviously made on a low budget, the movie had a certain look to it that contributed to my enjoyment and made it feel realer than if it had been a Hollywood presentation. Yes, there was a fair amount of grain and some minor video noise but I barely noticed it as the two lead characters went about their pilgrimage. The colors were generally accurate and overall, it looked like the budget provided but most of you will forgive the minor visual issues for the quality of the content.
Sound: The audio was presented in a decent 5.1 Dolby Digital mix of several languages, primarily French and Arabic. There were helpings of English, Moroccan, Turkish and perhaps one other language as the cast traveled from place to place in the movie. Contrast this to many other films centering on a travelogue approach and you'll quickly realize how realistic this approach seems by comparison. There were optional English subtitles for the majority of people watching the movie, all provided at the bottom of the screen in easily legible script. There wasn't an excessively dynamic audio track this time, with the vast majority of sound coming from my center speaker but for the occasional bit from one of the rears, and the dynamic range itself wasn't all that special but the vocals were distinctive and the soundtrack had a lot of interesting music to boot. Overall, the audio conveyed the same messages as the visuals, just on a different level, supporting the movie very nicely.
Extras: The strongest extra of any Film Movement release is the inclusion of a second short story independent film. In this package was a short film by director Eva Saks called Date where an uptight woman finds some perspective in a tribute to the victims of the 911 terrorist attacks. While only 5 minutes long, the messages it conveys are touching in the manner that only something coming from the heart can be, and I strongly recommend you watch this (I initially thought it was chosen to provide balance to the main movie, a film centering on a couple of Muslims, but that proved to be an erroneous guess on my part). There were also three biographies included, one for the director/writer of the Le Grand Voyage, and one for the two principle actors, Nicolas Cazale and Mohamed Majd. The only other extra was the double sided DVD cover that had some interesting information about the movie from the director.
Final Thoughts: Le Grand Voyage isn't a good movie because it has won various awards and accolades, nor is it good because it provides a distinctively different view of the Muslim community (although I can see why members of the community would appreciate it so much). No, it's a good movie due to the way the director provided an intelligent look at the generation gap between father and son, in a manner befitting the beliefs so often vilified by the press. If you took the material and adapted it for another faith, it would likely be just as strong since the message is not just about a particular faith so much as that universal condition that most of us go through as we grow up and establish our own identities from our parents. Once again, Film Movement picked a winner to distribute and I wholeheartedly recommend you go and see this one at a local arthouse theatre or pick up a copy of the DVD.