Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Grocer's Son (Le Fils de l'épicier) -- a simpler life

Director: Eric Guirado, 2008.

The Grocer's Son is a beautiful French film. A coming-of-age story merges with a dysfunctional family plot. But rather than being a Hollywood comedy, it is a charming low-key movie, brimming over with a sense of reality that most American films avoid. Part of this is due to the fact that many of the characters in the film are actually real people, not actors, and they are repeating their everyday experiences in front of the camera.

The movie begins with scenes from an old home movie: a young boy in the country. This is the young Antoine Sforza (Nicolas Cazalé). Without explaining this scene, the film moves to Paris, the big city. There Antoine, the hero, is now 30 years old and still trying to figure out what he wants to do or be. He is always "between jobs" never quite able to hold down a steady job. Part of this is his attitude: he has a chip on his shoulder.

When his father (Daniel Duval) is taken to a hospital, he reluctantly comes to see his mother (Jeanne Goupil). He is estranged from his father. Further, there is little love between Antoine and his brother François (Stéphan Guérin-Tillié), who runs a hair salon. But since his dad is a grocer in a small Provençe village and he drives a grocery van to the surrounding hamlets, someone needs to take over this job or the elderly villagers will not get their supplies. Surely Antoine could do this. But he is opposed to going back to the village and a life he had left 10 years earlier.

When he does decide to go back, he takes with him Claire (Clotilde Hesme), a beautiful young neighbor he has a crush on. She, too, is trying to find herself after an immature marriage and early divorce, and is applying for college in her mid-20s.

At first, as he drives the almost decrepit van to the outlying villages and homes, Antoine is rude to the villagers who seem strange and stubborn. He is all business and there is simply not much of that. It is only when he takes Claire with him that things change. She brings an air of sweetness and light that brightens up the face of even the gruffest old lady. Where customers refused to buy from Antoine, they line up to buy from Claire.

What makes The Grocer's Son a delightful movie is true-to-life realism and beautiful scenery. You could believe finding yourself in one of these villages and expect to see and hear these exact conversations. And you could think of worse ways of spending your time than being in a countryside like this, lazily eating French bread and drinking French wine.

The problem that caused Antoine to leave home is never described. It is simply there, like the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there . . . except Claire. To her, it is a family feud that has embittered Antoine and the others. François, too, has his own secrets. Both brothers have abandoned their parents, but in their own ways. Antoine has gone physically, wanting little or nothing to do with them. François is present but withholding the truth from them, living a lie.

Antoine had walked away from the place of his family. How often do we walk away from a place that has love and life, though we cannot see it because the tears of our pain blur our vision and blind us to reality? When we see only the hurt and the conflicts, we focus on ourselves. But when we look outside, beyond our wounds, at the bigger picture, we can forgive . . . ourselves, our parents, our siblings, our friends, even our enemies. Only in forgiveness, can we find freedom to embrace love and life.

Indeed, as Antoine changes his perspective on the villagers he drives out to, he comes to see them as real people in need, not nuisances or thieves. He begins to understand that he is there to help. This is more than a business, with a profit and loss line. This is more of a ministry. Though his father's competitor had opened a supermarket and was rolling in cash, the Sforza store was about compassion. Bottom line took second place to service.

Antoine rediscovers purpose for his life in a place he had abandoned. Running for years had brought him no sense of meaning, only a wasted decade. In facing his family he found renewed relationship and a place, his place. Perhaps this is a message we need to hear and embrace. Perhaps our purpose is still waiting to be discovered in a place we have left. If in pursuing our dreams we find ourselves in a rat-race of ever-working and never-achieving, perhaps we need to look for the simplicity of a simpler life where we can serve others.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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