Rudolph Valentino pretended to be one in The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Shiek (1926), though he was Italian-bread, but it wasn't until the 1960s screen ascendancy of Omar Sharif that the West possessed a genuine Arabic hearthrob. Alexandria-born in 1932, Sharif appeared in sixteen Egyptian melodramas, 1954-1962, before his inspired casting in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), as Sherif Ali, T.E.'s macho-but-loyal Arab ally. Dark-eyed and deliriously handsome and with an exotic accent, Sharif was steered quickly away from the oasis of Islamic roles. Gone international, he played, among many romantic leads in the 1960s, the lady-killer physician in Dr.Zhivago (1965), Barbra's Jewish gangster squeeze, Nicky Arnstein, in Funny Girl (1968), and the exiled revolutionary, Che Guevara, in Che! (1969).
However, the next three decades found the sexy desert fox treading water in meaningless costume dramas and sluggish TV movies, taking his dough and marching with far more purpose to the bridge table. There, rather than Hollywood, Sharif reigned as one of the world's great contract players. Post-2000, it's been years and years since anyone's really noticed Sharif in a meaningful movie. Maybe that explains the ridiculous to-do by the press- -Omar's Second Coming?-- about his modest performance as the titular lead in Monsieur Ibrahim, the pleasant new French-language film.
For Monsieur Ibrahim, Sharif's polished, jet-set Monte Carlo look is dirtied down a bit. He sports a four-day beard and there are gaps put in his teeth, so he makes some sense as a weary Parisian grocery-store owner. But beyond agreeing to the cosmetic alterations, he really doesn't push his acting much in Monsieur Ibrahim. Now in his 70s, Sharif still looks good in the frame, and he brings a certain command to the part just by showing up.
To me, that's a saving grace, that there's so little shtick by Sharif in a role which, in the wrong performer's hands (a Roberto Begnini, for example) could be a long bumpy night of scenery-chomping and grandstanding. It's all there waiting to be exploited in Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's sticky 2001 novella and play, Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran: a lovable old Muslim who reads the Koran for daily wisdom, who adopts a Jewish boy, who dances the Sufi dance, and who says things such as "...the Seine likes bridges, like a woman who's crazy about bracelets."
But the film from director-writer Francois Dupeyeron goes easy on Ibrahim's philosophizing, gives dignity and elegance to the scene of Sufi whirlers, and, happily, keeps the sentimentality subdued.
The story is an intentionally retro one, Nouvelle Vague lite, set in the early 1960s of Francois Truffaut's and Louis Malle's cinema tales of youth. The central story is inspired by Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows (159): a sensitive Parisian adolescent boy, Moses (Pierre Boulanger, a less obsessive Jean-Pierre Leaud), is more-or-less abandoned by distracted parents. More New Wave, with a scene at Ibrahim's grocery store in which an unnamed movie is being shot in the street. Unmistakeably, that film is Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963), with its familiar red convertible, a Michel Piccoli look-alike in the driver's seat, and a nameless blonde star (an Isabelle Adjani cameo) who can only be Contempt's slinky Brigitte Bardot.
Moses shares a Paris flat with a self-absorbed, workaholic lawyer dad (Gilbert Meki), who's been morose since his wife left them behind. Moses craves erotic contact, going with local whores the way of Truffaut's libidinous Antoine Doinel, though pining for the neighborhood nice Jewish girl, Myriam (Lola Naynmark). His father leaves him, Myriam cheats on him, so Moses turns all his attention to the rock of his life, Ibrahim. There's an adoption, Jewish Moses becomes Muslim Momo, and the two of them decide to embark on the Road of Life. Adieu, Paris!
There's a dreadful cutesy part where Ibrahim learns to drive, acquires a license. But the auto trip across Europe is handled as economically as a ten-day-wonder, Hollywood "C" movie (shots only of the sky as they supposedly traverse Albania and Greece); and who can resist all those otherworldy landcapes as they tool through Eastern Turkey, Ibrahim's homeland? One can almost forgive the so-so, bland ending.