So we’re sat in the front row in front of the big white screen, glancing around at the beautiful courtyard of the palazzo that houses the administrative offices of the Provincia di Roma. We’re there to see a movie, part of the Wine and Food Film Festival. A woman comes on stage. She announces that we’re going to see the movie we’ve come to see. Then she introduces another woman who is going to read some poems by Leonard Cohen. In Italian.
The second woman comes on stage. Her frock could have been better ironed, her hair brushed. She reads from the preface. She reads some poems. Her diction is clear. She emotes. She gesticulates appropriately. It goes on. Then it stops, and the applause is actually more than token. I think I must be missing the point. We’ve come to see a film; why poetry? The only explanation I can think of is that this redeems the whole event. From a freebie laid on by the Provincia in rather grand surroundings, it becomes an intellectual evening.
Couscous is a very interesting film, about immigrant North African families in a southern French port in which the traditional industries are dying. It has the feel of hard-worked improvisation, very Mike Leigh. (Which made me wonder why the Festival wasn’t screening Life is Sweet; maybe another time.) The story follows Slimane, who loses his job at a boat yard and attempts to build a restaurant on a moored boat. The strength of the film lies in Slimane’s large and fractious family and their friends, from his ex-wife, whose fish couscous is the whole point of the film, to his randy son, who almost ruins everything. I found the camerawork engrossing, with its tight close-ups and fast pans to follow the action creating an intimate and crowded feel. The dialogue is astonishingly rich, with everybody talking at, to and over everyone else, as large and fractious families do. I saw it dubbed into Italian, and I’m sure I didn’t catch the half of it, but it didn’t matter much. I did however, find myself wondering how on earth they had actually done the dubbing from French to Italian. Did they transcribe all the dialogue? So I wasn’t as engrossed as all that. If it was improvised, and it certainly seemed that way, it was pretty brilliant. There’s one particularly harrowing scene -- where the randy son’s wife wails at length about his behaviour as a bemused Slimane looks on in silent despair -- that left me exhausted just watching it. Like Big Night, there’s a grand dinner that goes a little wrong. Well, a lot wrong, and the movie shifts gear as the family tries to stop the restaurant from metaphorically sinking. And like Sideways, there’s an abrupt ending that allows everyone to continue the story to their own satisfaction. Most enjoyable.
But what did Leonard Cohen have to do with it?