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The Secret of the Grain [Criterion Collection] Blu-ray Review

  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
  • Resolution: 1080p/24
  • Audio Codec: Arabic/French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit)
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: A
  • Rating: Not Rated
  • Discs: 1
  • Studio: Criterion
  • Blu-ray Release Date: July 27, 2010
  • List Price: $39.95

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The Secret of the Grain - Widescreen

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Overall
[Rating:4.5/5]
The Film
[Rating:5/5]

Video Quality
[Rating:5/5]

Audio Quality
[Rating:4.5/5]

Supplemental Materials
[Rating:3/5]

Click thumbnails for high-resolution 1920X1080p screen captures

(Screen captures are lightly compressed with lossy JPEG  thus are meant as a general representation of the content and do not fully reveal the capabilities of the Blu-ray format)

The Film

[Rating:5/5]

Writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain is all about food, family and friends. A slice of life family drama that is at once wholly French, in the vein of Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours, but at the same time completely celebratory of the Franco-Arab culture, which he has thus far shown a mastery of portraying.

The Secret of the Grain, or, as it is known by its French title, La graine et le mulet, (The Grain and the Mullet) steps beyond a simple portrayal of the Arab immigrant culture, however; it is simply put, verging on documentary in its realism. There is not a moment in The Secret of the Grain where one feels like one is watching a group of actors giving you their interpretation of the Arab experience in France. This is a window into real life, and Kechiche makes sure not to step in the way with maladroit political statements about the struggle of Arab people. Likewise, we aren’t spoon fed any major European characters to ease our transition into the culture either. We are placed into the middle of a real world of real people — take or leave it. I’ll take it, because these folks are too compelling to leave.

The story revolves around Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) and his extended family of children, grandchildren, ex-wife, new girlfriend, and his new girlfriend’s daughter. It’s a family that gathers for their matriarch Souad’s (Bouraouïa Marzouk), Sliamne’s ex-wife, famous couscous every Sunday. Even Slimane is still involved in the weekly feast, dropping off the fish for his ex-wife, before later in the day she sends their sons over to his hotel room with his serving of couscous.  This is where the film gets its French title, The Grain and the Mullet (mullet being a kind of Mediterranean fish popular in Northern Africa).

At the film’s opening the sixty-year-old Slimane loses the job he has held at the shipyard for forty years. Instead of just going away quietly, Slimane decides to use his severance pay to buy an old dilapidated ship and convert it into a restaurant serving his ex-wife’s signature dish of couscous and fish so he can leave it as a legacy for his children and grandchildren.

His girlfriend’s daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi) helps him on the project, negotiating all the financial pitfalls and red tape, but institutional racism and biases get in the way. Slimane is forced to resort to holding a big party on the renovated ship with all the local officials in attendance in order to convince them that he has a valid business plan and great food.

Of course, nothing goes as planned. Slimane’s girlfriend Latifa (Hatika Karaoi) is jealous that he chose to use his ex-wife’s recipe for his restaurant, his daughters are hostile towards Latifa and Rym when they show up at the banquet, and the couscous goes missing.

The final forty-minutes of The Secret of the Grain are filled with suspense, drama, and comedy the likes of which you’ve probably never seen on screen, but you’ll certainly recognize it all if you know anything about big, dysfunctional families.

The shooting style of Kechiche’s drama, handheld cameras right there next to the actors and the action, is something that also helps the realism of this most compellingly natural and realistic film. The actors play their roles with ease, and Hafsia Herzi as Rym deserves special mention. Her role starts out on the periphery and slowly builds into the most important role in the film. The camera loves this woman, she is charismatic, gorgeous, and needs to be in more films.

Video Quality

[Rating:5/5]

The Secret of the Grain was shot entirely in high definition on the HD Sony 900. The movie was created entirely in the digital realm and never sent to film. This high definition transfer, approved by director Abdellatif Kechiche, was converted directly from the digital intermediate color space to SMPTE Rec. 709 24fps 1080p and is encoded in AVC/MPEG-4 ion this Blu-ray.

The film itself and the excellent transfer from Criterion belie their digital origins and look rather film-like most of the time. There is video noise that seems more like grain than anything harsh and digital. Color reproduction in this 1.85:1 presentation is beautifully rendered, natural and vibrant, with natural flesh tones. White levels are bright and contrast is strong without clipping. Blacks are fairly deep with an extended amount of shadow detail. Overall, it is another reference quality release from the folks at Criterion.

Audio Quality

[Rating:4.5/5]

The audio for The Secret of the Grain was recorded digitally and mastered for this release at 24-bit from the original digital audio master files using Pro Tools HD.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a subtle blend of ambience and discrete information balanced between the front and surround channels, with an emphasis on the center-weighted dialogue, which is clean and full. Things open up with the film’s climactic belly dance sequence and traditional folk music, offering a solid mid range, and smooth high frequencies, but not much in the way of low frequency information. Still, it’s a strong soundtrack for this type of film.

Supplemental Materials

[Rating:3/5]

Informative interview segments with the cast members and director plus a lengthy re-editing of the film’s climactic belly dance scene make the supplements on The Secret of the Grain well worth watching. Then, of course, there is the excellently written essay and illustrated booklet that are Criterion staples, and this is a truly value-added package worth the price of admission — even before the superb film starts to roll.

The supplements provided with this release are:

  • Abdellatif Kechiche (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 0:12.46)– An interview with the director conducted exclusively for the Criterion Collection in March 2010.
  • Sueur  w/ optional introduction by Kechiche (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 0:45.10) — This forty-five-minute featurette is director Abdellatif Kechiche’s reedit of Rym’s belly-dancing sequence in The Secret of the Grain, a new visual and aural interpretation of the film’s passionate climax.
  • 20 Heures (1.33:1; 1080i/60; 0:07.51) — This brief excerpt from an episode of the television series 20 heures features interviews with director Abdellatif Kechiche, actress Hafsia Herzi, and many residents of the port city of Sète, the location for The Secret of the Grain, as they celebrate the film’s multiple awards and the 2008 Césars. Directed by Vincent Videl and Daniela Suteu, the episode originally aired on February 23, 2008.
  • Ludovic Cortade (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 0:21.08) — In this new interview, French film scholar Ludovic Cortade, author of Le Cinéma de L’mmobilité, discusses the themes and style of The Secret of the Grain.
  • Hafsia Herzi (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 0:14.41) — In this interview, actress Hafsia Herzi, who plays Rym, discusses the making of The Secret of the Grain.
  • Bouraouïa Marzouk (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 0:11.02) — This interview features actress Bouraouïa Marzouk, who plays Souad in The Secret of the Grain.
  • Musicians (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 0:15.17) — In this video portrait, the musicians from The Secret of the Grain discuss their integral role in the film.
  • Theatrical Trailer (1.85:1; 1080i/60)
  • Booklet: Featuring an essay by film critic Wesley Morris, film credits, and information on the transfer.

The Definitive Word

Overall:

[Rating:4.5/5]

The Secret of the Grain is the perfect family drama. It practically throws out the acting and storytelling for an almost documentary. I also hesitate to refer to this as an “ethnic” or “Arabic” film. This is a film that may very well have elements that the Franco-Arabic can uniquely relate to, but it is universal in its scope and can, and should, be enjoyed by any and everyone. Certainly Criterion have made it easy with their excellent reference quality Blu-ray release. Highly Recommended.

Additional Screen Captures:

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BestBuy.com:
The Secret of the Grain - Widescreen

Purchase The Secret of the Grain [Criterion Collection] on Blu-ray at CD Universe

Shop for more Blu-ray titles at Amazon.com

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