Wise Ibrahim crosses cultures, generations and religions

“Monsieur Ibrahim” starts out, like countless coming-of-age movies before it, as an affectionately nostalgic, slightly risqué chronicle of an adolescent boy’s sexual awakening.

A precocious Jewish lad living with his aloof father in a working-class Paris neighborhood in the early 1960s, Momo (Pierre Boulanger) seemingly has nothing on his mind except losing his virginity.

This beautifully acted and profoundly resonant French film assuredly does, and we are gradually carried with Momo into deeper waters as events unfold. With uncommon grace and a lack of dogma, “Monsieur Ibrahim” makes the case persuasively that the distance between people of disparate backgrounds and ages is an illusion.

The unexpected agent of change in Momo’s life is a graying, softspoken Muslim named Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), who runs the cramped shop where the boy buys — and shoplifts — groceries.

Momo has no problem justifying his petty thefts. For starters, every franc he saves from the money his dad allots for food shopping gets him closer to paying for one of the prostitutes who ply their trade on the block.

Second, he doesn’t see the shopkeeper as a person but as “the other” — a foreigner with strange rituals and customs who has no life beyond the long hours he spends in the store.

Momo’s a little like the young Duddy Kravitz, a handsome hustler who’s always working the angles and thinks he’s a lot smarter than he is. He doesn’t fool us and he doesn’t fool Ibrahim, who sees every pocketed package.

Ibrahim isn’t some invisible stranger — the spook sitting by the door, to borrow a phrase from another time and place — but a neighborhood fixture who sizes up every customer.

He knows that Momo lives alone with his father and is charged with the daily task of buying and fixing dinner. And Ibrahim knows that Momo, while hardly a juvenile delinquent, doesn’t receive much adult supervision or guidance.

In the glimpses he provides of Momo’s father, director Francois Dupeyron (working from a screenplay adapted from Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s autobiographical play) presents a man scarred by the past and miserable in the present. The nature of his trauma isn’t stated, although an early cut of the film included a scene that implied that he had lost his parents in the Holocaust. (Sharif revealed that tidbit during a November visit to San Francisco.)

Momo, hooked on pop music and under the influence of his hormones, is less interested in painful family history than in polishing his technique with working girls. But for all his self-assurance, he yearns for a fatherly influence.

Gradually and without contrivance, the film constructs a bond between Ibrahim and Momo. As the story progresses, it’s clear that Momo has adopted Ibrahim as his surrogate father.

In keeping with the generous and low-key spirit of the film, their religious differences are beside the point. There’s a scene in which Momo is surprised to learn that Ibrahim is circumcised, and the older man explains that Arabs and Jews are children of Abraham.

That sequence, and the presence of Timmy Thomas’ entrancing “Why Can’t We Live Together” on the soundtrack, are the only nods toward the ongoing strife between Jews and Arabs. To its credit, “Monsieur Ibrahim” is about people, not politics.

Even more surprising is the deft and delicate way in which it segues from the carnal to the spiritual — from the profane to the sacred, if you like. A lot of movies with more grandiose budgets and effects purport to take you on a journey, but the modest “Monsieur Ibrahim” really does.

This is the rare movie that, with neither pretension nor condescension, speaks to our higher impulses. “Monsieur Ibrahim” invites us to contemplate our place in the world, and that’s some kind of miracle for a movie.

Monsieur Ibrahim” opens Friday, March 5, at the Clay in San Francisco, the Albany Twin, the Sequoia Twin in Mill Valley, the Cinearts in Palo Alto, the Los Gatos Cinema and the Century 25 in San Jose.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.