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Abdellatif Kechiche at Harvard

Posted by Wesley Morris  March 26, 2010 08:30 AM

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Abdellatif Kechiche.jpgWhether they know it or not, the French are lucky to have Abdellatif Kechiche, at least from where Americans sit. His North Africans and French-Arabs needn't be gangstas or endure prison to be revealed as fully human. The family in 2008's "The Secret of the Grain" had merely to survive their restaurant's opening night, which turns out to be harder than you'd think. Kechiche managed to turn what, by rights, should have been a 44-minute drama into a nearly great epic, with generous helpings of couscous, fish, and belly-dancing. It's a thrilling achievement that comes by those thrills with stunning honesty. 

Secret of the Grain.jpg
At 49, Kechiche has made only three movies (he began as an actor), but each is hotter, tenser, and more daringly mundane than what preceded it. His second film, "Games of Love and Chance" (2004), about a kid from the projects who acts in the school play, should be required viewing for anyone planning a movie about the expansion of a teenager's emotional spectrum. Warning, though: Its casual sensuality will be tough to improve upon. A very good director can make the basics of being alive -- food, sex, and food, to name three -- seem like the only reasons to live. Kechiche is such an artist, welding realism and melodrama until one seems useless without the other. That's true of almost exactly no one else. 

The Harvard Film Archive is devoting this weekend to Kechiche's films, as part of his accepting Harvard's McMillan-Stewart Fellowship in Distinguished Filmmaking, which goes to directors of Francophone African descent. He joins some intimidating peers. Abderrahmane Sissako was a 1999 fellow, and the late Ousmane Sembene accepted in 2001.  Kechiche will attend all three screenings this weekend. May he be peppered with pleas for advice. If he can inspire just two young American filmmakers to bring new people and perceptions -- some genuine feeling -- to their art, then the movies will be profoundly better for it.

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