Gazing out his window on the Place Pigalle in Paris, young Moses (Pierre Boulanger) is distracted and uncertain. While Timmy Thomas’ “Everybody Wants to Live Together” fills the soundtrack (the time is mid-1960s), Moses plans his first foray into sex, a date with one of the hookers who work Rue Bleue (“How much for a quickie?”, he practices, posing with his fedora in the mirror). At the same time, he remains a child, utterly unable to resist his urge to toss a glass of water on his red-haired neighbor, Myriam (Lola Naynmark), practicing the latest dance steps in the alleyway between their homes.
In this first sequence in Monsieur Ibrahim, Moses appears a typical teenaged boy, trying out his masculine prerogative and simultaneously unsure of what he wants. Adapted from Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novel (also a play) by director François Dupeyron and shrewdly shot (primarily with handheld camera) by Rémy Chevrin, the film delicately evokes the perplexities of male adolescence. Drawn especially to the stunning Fatou (Mata Gabin), a black prostitute who wears a blond wig and green summer dress, Moses approaches her; recognizing him as the boy who lives “over there,” she turns him down, not believing his assertion that he’s 16.
At the same time, Moses is feeling frustrated at home. His father (Gilbert Melki) is increasingly depressed and distant, insisting that the curtains remain closed because sunlight damages his book bindings (his library shelves are crammed full). Each evening he arrives home, clicks off his son’s rock music, chain-smokes, and downs laxatives (his failing bodily functions reflecting his emotional state), occasionally comparing Moses to a long gone older brother. According to the father, Paulie was bookish and deferential (“Your brother never put down the dictionary”), whereas Moses, jangling with repressed energy, very much in the present, seems rebellious. Exasperated as he prepares dinner, Moses retorts, “He never did the shopping.”
With his father more and more withdrawn and ineffectual, Moses must look after household chores. Repeatedly sent across to the street to “the Arab’s” to buy toilet paper and foodstuffs, he finds another outlet for resistance: he steals cans of food from the shop, thinking that the proprietor, Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), doesn’t notice. While the Jewish Moses is initially inclined to dismiss Ibrahim as an “Arab” (taking the term for convenience store literally, or, as Ibrahim puts it, “Arab means open from 8am to midnight”), the old man corrects him: he’s a Sufi from the Golden Crescent.
Ibrahim — the sage, charismatic, and plainly desired father figure in this sentimental tale — sees other details of Moses’ daily existence. He sees him with the prostitutes, (Moses is at last serviced by Sylvie [Anne Suarez], who observes of his penis, “It hasn’t been around much”), and offers suggestions for feeding his grumpy and now jobless father on the cheap, with diluted Beaujolais and cat food passing for pâté. He also takes the boy on walks in the park and starts offering life advice that runs counter to that of Moses’ father (who encouraged him to save his coins in a piggy bank, to become “rich”). Ibrahim, by contrast, encourages him to smile and ask questions rather than relying on books for answers. “What you give is yours forever,” says Ibrahim, “What you keep is lost forever.”
Such aphoristic instruction suits Moses well for the moment; when the old man renames him “Momo,” the boy is glad for a new identity, taking it now as short for “Muhammed.” Absorbing from his new friend as much “knowledge” as possible, Momo begins reading the Koran (though, as he admits, he doesn’t understand most of it), even as he decides to start “dating” his neighbor Myriam. Together, the kids observe a movie shoot on their street one day, featuring a vavoomy blond (Isabelle Adjani, credited here as “The Star” and still as frighteningly youthful as she has been for the past 20 years), then spend some romance movie-ish moments of their own, holding hands and kissing by the river. She teaches him to dance, he buys her a 45, and then she betrays him in a way that recalls his abandonment by his mother (Isabelle Renauld, whose brief appearance only underlines Momo’s/the film’s image of the terrible mom).
Taking Momo’s point of view, Monsieur Ibrahim portrays women as ranging between two limited “types.” While he is enchanted by the gentle, but by-definition detached, working girls (a category that might include The Star as well), he is repeatedly disappointed by the self-centered everyday sorts who appear to reject poor Momo out of hand.
As he is also unwanted by his father, Momo is understandably relieved by the attentions paid him by the bighearted Ibrahim. Together, they travel to Turkey, where Ibrahim imparts more life lessons, including an appreciation of the joy and sensual logic of dancing (this demonstrated by a trip to a temple, where they observe a group of whirling dervishes). By the end, the film seems to have written itself into a corner, resorting to the tritest of resolutions. Given its general dependence on stereotypes and clichés — the golden-hearted hookers, the flinty Jewish father — the finale is not surprising, but it is disappointing.