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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Open Your Heart
by Diana Saenger

Although love has the power to transform and excite, it doesn't always have to be an emotion between lovers to inspire us. Monsieur Ibrahim, a French film from Sony Pictures Classics, presents a sweet, caring story about the relationship between a Muslim shopkeeper (Omar Sharif) and a young, homeless Jewish boy (Pierre Boulanger).

Director Francois Dupeyron paints a vivid image of the colorful life on the streets in Paris in the 1960s. The movie, based on the book Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, captures some of the essence of Parisian life -- especially in scenes with seductively attired prostitutes and in another that depicts the filming of a Brigitte Bardot movie. 

Mr. Ibrahim, an Arab man living in a Jewish neighborhood, is a gentle soul accepted by the locals. Yet they seldom follow his advice about what products they need, and none of them really welcome him as a friend.

Pre-teen Momo is seeking adventure and answers to life's questions. His father, a Holocaust survivor, can't get over the abandonment of his wife (Momo's mother) years earlier. He meets a tragic end, leaving Momo alone. At first the boy relishes his independence, and his involvement with young prostitutes who treat him like a lost puppy is an education in itself.

Momo soon discovers he cannot pay the rent much less feed himself, although he manages to steal a few items from Mr. Ibrahim's shop. However, the young boy is putting nothing over on the wise shopkeeper. While Momo works hard at concealing his new acquisitions, Ibrahim uses these moments to talk to him about valuable lessons taught in the Koran.

Much as the young Boulanger bewitches viewers from the first moment he offers a big smile in the film's opening, Momo strikes an accord with Mr. Ibrahim, who soon adopts him. Together they begin a journey that changes both of their lives forever.

The 72-year-old Sharif, a marvelous actor who played leading roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago -- one of the most remembered romances of the century -- had decided not to make any more movies, but he was drawn to this story. "What I liked about this film is that it is a love story," said Sharif. "It's a film about humans, about exchanges. Another reason is the assumptions we make because of labels. In this case, their religion. Abraham is Muslim and Momo is Jewish, yet nothing is really made of that. The reason it has relevance is because I, as a popular Arab personality whom the Arab people like and respect, thought it was time for me to make a statement about what I thought about this whole thing. I know it won't change the world. It won't stop violence. It won't stop hatred. But you have to say what you think, and I think it is possible to love each other and to live with each other."

In making Monsieur Ibrahim, Sharif also hopes to further ease religious and political unrest in the world. "If the boy hadn't been Jewish and the man Muslim, it wouldn't have made any difference. The situation in the Middle East is what makes the film relevant. If the Palestinians and the Israelis were at peace, the relationship between a Muslim man and a Jewish boy would have no relevance. My philosophy is that I'm prepared to love everybody I meet independently of the fact that they're Jewish, Black, White, Christian or Muslim, unless they're bad. Strangely enough, I brought up my son this way, and he married three times -- a Jewish girl, a Catholic girl, and now he's married to a Muslim. I have a Jewish grandson and a Muslim grandson who are brothers, as well as my two grandchildren."

Was it hard for Sharif to step back in front of a camera after five years? "The last thing I did was a 10-minute part with Antonio Banderas at the beginning of The 13th Warrior. I was worried that I'd forgotten how to act. It's a worry that I always have until I get into it, and it becomes a pleasure," said Sharif who is enjoying more new acting pleasure in the soon-to-open Hidalgo with Viggo Mortensen.

In both real life and in Monsieur Ibrahim, Sharif reminds us that life is about choices. Director Dupeyron said, "The story reminds us that, even in the worst of times, if you don't close yourself up, you will always find someone, somewhere, who will smile at you. 'It's a hymn to tolerance, a cry for hope,' that's what I would like the audience to feel, after seeing the film."

(Released by Sony Classic Pictures and rated "R" for some sexual content.)

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