|'Le Grand Voyage,' a poignant pilgrimage
|Ferroukhi's film follows a father and son making a 10,000-kilometer road trip to Mecca
The pilgrimage to Mecca, or the hajj in Arabic, is one of the five pillars of Islam, a necessary rite for any Muslim capable of doing it to perform once in a lifetime.
Every year millions of Muslims from around the world undertake the physical and spiritual odyssey. Famously, Malcolm X - the firebrand separatist Black Muslim militant - returned from Mecca with his political views radically altered by the experience.
"Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races," he said after performing the pilgrimage.
Reda, the central character in Ismael Ferroukhi's "Le Grand Voyage," may not undergo quite such an emphatic epiphany by the end of his journey but the director still manages to imbue his film with enough warmth and generosity of spirit to create moments of genuine poignancy.
"Le Grand Voyage," which won the Luigi de Laurentiis award for best first film at last year's Venice Film Festival, follows the journey of Reda, an apathetic university student more interested in his non-Muslim girlfriend Lisa than studying the Koran, and his devout father, intent on performing the hajj before he dies.
Traveling in a makeshift car from France to Saudi Arabia, the two men embark on a 6,000-mile road trip, crossing much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East along the way.
Expansively filming the ever-changing landscape - from a snow-swept Bulgarian hilltop that evokes Kiarostami to the sun-baked dusty vistas of Syria - the director nevertheless keeps his panoramic visuals in check, concentrating instead on the grand inner voyage undertaken by the initially distant father and son.
"I wanted to tell a real-life story about two Muslim protagonists without conveying cliches about a community that is both pacifist and tolerant at heart," Ferroukhi says, explaining his reasons for making the movie.
"I really wanted to re-humanize a community whose reputation is smeared by an extreme minority using religion for political ends."
This humanity can certainly be seen in his two leading characters. Reda - ruggedly played by Nicolas Cazale - is filled with typical second generation bluster, culturally and emotionally separated from his Moroccan immigrant father. Where his father speaks Arabic with a distinctly garbled North African dialect, Reda replies in French, the very model of integration.
Ferroukhi throws into this mix, albeit temporarily, the character of Mustapha - a fun-loving, wily Turk.
At this point, "Le Grand Voyage" expands into a three-handed reflection on Islam, and its application in the 21st century and particularly in the West. Thankfully Ferroukhi, himself a Moroccan-born French immigrant, takes a playful line of enquiry.
"You have a lot to learn about religion," Mustapha teasingly tells Reda, after Reda protests Mustapha's attempts to make him drink beer. Evoking tales of dervishes and exotic nights of revelry, Mustafa brings a certain lapsed pragmatism into his application of religion, one that auspiciously puts the fun back into fundamentalism, standing in stark contrast to the father's principled rigidity.
At first, however, Reda's drunken transgression is laden with disastrous consequences. The young man is cast into the throbbing clutches of his awaiting hangover with his father's incensed claims that Mustapha has stolen their money as Reda lay in his alcohol-induced slumber. As a heavy-handed moral appears to be hurtling towards the viewer, Ferrouhki subverts the father's condemnation as Reda discovers the money in their car, thereby acquitting Mustapha and his supposedly apostate ways.
It is with such slights of hand that the director side-steps the dreaded didacticism one might fear from this timely exploration of religion.
Ferroukhi's film is a product of its time. Bearing the distinction of being the first film allowed to film inside Mecca, "Le Grand Voyage" contains breath-takingly wide-screen scenes of the mass of pilgrims circling the Kaaba inside the holy mosque. Elsewhere the production was frequently hampered by world events - its shoot in Serbia coincided with the assassination of the country's prime minister, while the Middle East segments were filmed just as the Iraq war had started. Similarly its release in the U.K. came just weeks after London suffered its own terrorist attack and the world continues to find itself in the grip of the ongoing war on terror.
Ferroukhi avoids tackling any of these political issues in the film head-on - the war on Iraq, for example, is never mentioned by any of the other Arab or Muslim characters - preferring an oblique approach.
"I wanted to break loose from any kind of guideline, get rid of anything that could connect the characters to a specific context so that the movie could be as universal as possible," Ferrouhki explains.
Thus Ferroukhi limits overt religious symbolism to a sequence relating one of Reda's dreams. The impetuous young man sinks into an unforgiving sand dune as his father tends a flock of sheep, oblivious to his son's cries. The reference to the ritual sacrifice of a sheep, in commemoration of Abraham's son Ishmael - and biblical ancestor of the Arabs - neatly ties in the idea of a oneness of belief between Testaments Old and New to the Koran, as well as serving as a portentous harbinger of the film's fateful climax.
Ferroukhi goes on to render the idea of a Muslim ummah, or brotherhood, with sensitivity. As Reda and his father come ever closer to Mecca, so does the ailing man visibly soften, his life's dream finally within grasp. Explaining the reasons behind their arduous choice of travel, the father tells his son that a pilgrimage must be accompanied by hardship, hence by car instead of by plane. The father's description is filled with lyrical compassion and a humor that underlies Ferroukhi's ultimate message - the need for tolerance and understanding.
"We came all this way and it's only now you get interested," the father chides his son warmly. The father's parting words of thanks to his son - simply expressed, "God Bless you" - are heart-breakingly humble, so invested as they are with love and gratitude. Their final reconciliation - with each acknowledging the other's individual right to belief and expression - is all the more effective for its understatement.
Pleasingly, Ferroukhi doesn't enact any grand conversion on Reda's behalf. In one humorous sight gag, as his father prays with the other pilgrims, Reda busies himself writing the name of his girlfriend in the sand. Love, Ferroukhi reminds us, remains the answer.
The Daily Star