Screening at the 34th New Directors/New Films Festival, New York City; Fri. March 25, 6 pm, Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; Sat. March 26, 6:15 pm, Museum of Modern Art; Buy tickets here
For many Muslims, the pilgrimage to Mecca the fifth pillar of the faith is the trip of a lifetime. Pilgrims strip themselves of all marks of identity except those that indicate their allegiance to Islam. The haj, as the pilgrimage is known, signifies proper devotion to the will of God and literally means "an effort." Even though only ten percent of believers manage to make the journey, the two million who do each year find themselves participants in the largest single gathering in one place at one time for one purpose on earth.
In Le Grand Voyage, an extraordinary film written and directed by Ismael Ferroukhi, a high school student who lives in the south of France drives his Moroccan father across seven countries to Mecca. Along the way they encounter many obstacles (always part of the pilgrimage experience) and knock heads with each other. Here in broad and engaging strokes the filmmaker lays out the clash between a devout man of faith and his thoroughly secularized son who doesn't have a clue about the meaning of Islam.
Unwilling to take a plane to Mecca, Father (Mohamed Majd) wants his eldest son to drive him. But when he cannot do so, the ardent Muslim calls upon his younger son, Reda (Nicholas Cazale), to perform this service for him. They live in two different worlds and have never communicated on an intimate level regarding their beliefs or values. Reda complains to his mother that he cannot go because of his exams, but the trip is non-negotiable. On the road his father is unhappy with his fast driving and tells him that "those who hurry are already dead." Reda is infuriated when he discovers that his father has thrown away his cell phone and thus ended any communication he could have with his girlfriend, a non-Muslim girl.
Although Reda wants to stop and see some of the cities in Italy, his father tells him that the purpose of the journey has nothing to do with being tourists. While he prays five times a day and reads his Koran, Reda squirms restlessly. They squabble whether or not to pick up a woman dressed in black and after they do, Reda can't wait to leave her behind at a place where they eat. The two men spend a frigid evening sleeping in the car during a blizzard. Father is hospitalized briefly. After they running into difficulty at a border crossing, Mustapha (Jacky Nercessian), a Turkish man, guides them through Istanbul where they see the Blue Mosque. He takes Reda out for a night of drinking and later Father accuses Mustapha of stealing the money he had hidden in a sock. Later, Reda finds the sock and grows even more impatient with his traveling companion. The final flare-up takes place when Reda brings a dancer to their hotel room and is discovered. It takes a while for his father to forgive him.
The teenager feels like a complete outsider when they connect with a caravan of other Muslim pilgrims. In Mecca, he is overwhelmed by the sight of so many believers who are like his father involved in a great spiritual adventure. Le Grand Voyage is a stirring road movie that sheds light on Muslim piety and reveals the gulf that continues to separate those who believe and those who don't even within the family circle.