Perhaps this is the first time a movie produced in Europe depicts some of the true meanings of Islam. The film moves away from the stereotypes of extremism and violence that the Western audiences have become used to, and pinpoints the true complexity of Muslim societies and the virtues of mercy, tolerance, and mutual love that Islam embraces. The movie Le Grand Voyage, is written by Ismail Farroukhi who won the Lion du Futur prize in the Mostra de Venise 2004 festival.
A Journey’s DialogueThe movie recounts the story of the cultural clashes between a father and his son due to the different environments they were nurtured in. Reda, the son, is a 20-year-old student who lives with his family in Provence, France. His father, on the other hand, spent most of his life in a Bedouin society in the Moroccan desert before he emigrated. Life’s harshness and austerity forced him to travel to France where he settled and worked. However, he was keen on his original identity. He committed himself to speaking Arabic to his children and continuing the performance of his religious duties—the five daily prayers, fasting during the month of Ramadan, paying the annual zakah[1], and so on—all of which trigger his son’s irritation.

Reda is astonished at his father paying zakah money at a time he himself is badly in need of that money. The young son is deeply impressed by French culture, customs, and conduct, and does not see anything wrong with spending his life lavishing himself with alcohol and girls.

When the father grows older, he wants to fulfil the religious duty of Hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah) and requests that his son drive him to the holy city of Makkah. Reda, whose university entrance exams are soon to be held, refuses to carry out his father’s request because he thinks the journey would be very strenuous and that the timing is inappropriate. A conflict flares up between the father and son and ends with the son’s assent to carry out his father’s request.

The long journey, which starts in France and terminates in Makkah, runs parallel to an exciting dialogue between father and son, the pitch of which intensifies at times and at other times slackens, according to the fluctuations in their relationship on the road. The dialogue is characterized by many shifts: initial fury and rage as father and son clash, move into times of long silent pauses when the language of mutual understanding has run dry.

Both reject the other’s attitude and conduct and each tries to spend the journey’s time according to his own disposition and customs. Nonetheless, after spending long nights in the car, the dialogue gradually transforms from the language of mutual respect to the language of mutual understanding, love, and acceptance. The seeds of love begin to sprout between the two after a crisis in which the familial bond was about to break up. As the relationship develops, another aspect of Reda’s character is brought to the fore. He no longer responds to his girlfriend’s phone calls, whereas before, he seized any traffic jam or self-absorption on his father’s part to send her SMS messages.

The writer, Ismail Farroukhi, has succeeded in bringing out his message through the concept of the “road movie,” in the course of which, he highlights how father and son learn to co-exist in spite of their differences. Despite the collisions between the Arab and the French backgrounds, father and son eventually reach a mutual understanding.

The writer’s choice of a journey to Makkah was a fortunate one as Makkah is the only terminus towards which divergent characters and cultures can share a journey.

The journey leads the audience, the father, and his son through numerous countries—Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria and Jordan—however, these locations are no more than passing stations. The complete focus is on the two characters, father and son, and how their relationship evolves over space and time. The writer leaves the upbringings, cultures, and experiences that have created the cultural gap between the two, to our imagination, and instead focuses on the way the characters deal with and transcend the differences. He depicts how Reda’s feelings towards his father transform from no more and no less than respect, to love, cordiality, and esteem. This transformation reaches a climax when the son turns down his girlfriend’s phone call, reflecting a new rupture with his old self and a new closeness to his father.

The Autobiographical Factor

 It’s a road movie highlighting how both father and son could co-exist. The movie’s idea stems from the personal experience of the director. Ismail Farrouqi was born in Morocco in 1962 and travelled to France with his family at the age of three. From there, he travelled by car with his father to the holy city of Makkah to carry out the Hajj. When he was older and his father recounted the adventure to Ismail, he thought it must be a joke or a delusion. The writer stored the idea in his subconscious until it crystallized into this movie, which bears several socio-educational and religious meanings.

This movie is not Farroukhi’s first success. He directed several short movies, which received considerable praise. His first work in 1992 and entitled L’expose won the Cannes prize for the Best Short Story. It relates the story of a French-Moroccan boy describing his native land. The works Trop de bonheur (Too Much Happiness) and Culpabilité zéro (Zero Guilt) then followed. In 1996, he wrote L’inconnu (The Unknown), starring the actress Catherine Deneuve. He then wrote two French television serials: Un été aux hirondelles (A Summer of Swallows) in 1997, and Petit Ben (Young Ben) in 1999. In 1998, he co-authored The Plane with Siderick Cattan before he started work on his Le Grand Voyage, which took five years to finish.

The writer’s skill manifests itself in the quick-paced scenes and pauses. Fleeting glances and reactions between father and son have special prominence in the movie and stir up the audience’s emotions. The father gazing into the sky to determine the direction—a practice he used in his youth; reciting the Qur’an and invoking Allah for help when the car becomes covered in snow; and the father selling his camera in order to buy a lamb for the ritual sacrifice are just a few other examples.

At the close of the movie, as father and son reach the holy Ka`bah[2], Reda sees the thousands of people in white clothing who are heading for the holy House to perform their pilgrimage rituals. Astonishment and affection overwhelm him, strengthened as he hears the recitation of the Qur’an. He feels that God is supporting them. He feels there is no room for extremists who deface the religion’s reputation. He feels that his father has always been a tolerant, religious man who performs his religious duties of prayer and fasting and has never been extremist or fanatic.

 A silent dialogue

It seems that Ismail Farroukhi has been deeply moved by the unjust accusations against Islam and decided to defend it through this movie.

In spite of difficulties faced by the crew, the movie’s scenes were all shot on location. Curfews were imposed on them in Serbia, when the Serbian prime minister was assassinated, and during the first weeks of the war in Iraq, and the Turkish authorities denied them access to the Blue Mosque altogether. It is thrilling that part of the movie was shot inside the holy city of Makkah, where the two stars are shown walking through the holy precinct and circumambulating the Ka`bah. The camera crew, however, could not shoot all the Makkah scenes inside the city due to official agreements.

The Cinema Defensive

The French media showed a strong interest in the film and expressed both admiration and criticism. Expresse magazine praised the writer and his successful presentation of a simple human story devoid of any dramatic complications, but also criticized some technical issues. The Cine Life magazine presented a critical analysis of the film, whereas the Tele-Drama magazine praised the work, its moving impact, its realism, and its truthfulness, and referred to the exact circumstances in which the screenplay had been shot as the “first truthful depiction of Makkah.”

Many other papers pointed out how members of different layers of French society had felt touched by the relationship between the calm but bossy father and his morally deviant but respectful son. What really fascinated the audience—as media coverage reflects—is the realism of the dialogues and the physical journey, where people felt like they were experiencing the journey themselves.

By Shereen El Habaak
Translated By Abdelazim R. Abdelazim

[1]  Money paid by Muslims every year to the poor as a religious duty.

[2]  The holy mosque in Makkah where Muslims perform most of their pilgrimage rituals.