“Le grand voyage” (2004), the first- and to-date only – feature film written and directed by Moroccan-born French filmmaker Ismaël Ferroukhi, is a fairly genial road movie. The road is from France to Mecca. Reda (Nicolas Cazalé) is not only a non-practicing Muslim, but is remarkably ignorant about the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Reda’s older brother (Kamel Belghazi) was supposed to drive their father (Mohamed Majd), but his driving license was suspended (for drunk driving) and Reda, kicking and screaming, is inveigled into replacing him.
Reda goes to Mecca without making the 3000-mile trip a hajj, which is something of an accomplishment for a Muslim (a Muslim by birth, not by any conviction).
Reda does not ask about the meaning of hajj until they have made it to Saudi Arabia. After they left Europe, Reda asked why his father had not flown there. His father said that it is more blessed to walk than to ride, more blessed to ride than take a boat, more blessed to take a boat than to fly. He recalls his own father setting off on a mule… The father cannot drive, but holds the passport and the money. The father speaks Mogrhebi Arabic to the son, the son answers only in French (he also speaks English as an attempted lingua franca at several junctures).
Along the way they drive an old woman (Ghina Ognianova) part of the way and a man (Jacky Nercessian) who lived for decades in France who intervened with the Turkish border police part of the way, and eventually join a multinational motorized caravan. (I don’t recall any camels, but there are definitely sheep.)
Except for Istanbul (where they visit the Blue Mosque) and Mecca, the movie is not particularly scenic. There is little that I’d call Big Drama along the way. Father and son are almost continually irritated at the ways of the other, including the father’s praying and the son’s drinking. Nothing is ever said about Reda’s French girlfriend, or even about Reda’s cellphone that his father threw in the trash at a truck stop.
Each stews more than remonstrates, and the movie is minimalist even beyond budgetary constraints (one million euros, one Super-16 camera and natural light. I’d rate it 7/10, though 10/10 for pluck (the filmmakers were arrested several times, even though much of the movie was shot in Morocco). I don’t want to write anything about what happens, especially about the no-pat ending. The tension between the devout father and his secularized son is well played by both (Cazalé was also very good as the restive “Le fils de l’épicier”/”The Grocer’s Son,” a 2008 movie set in the south of France that is otherwise mediocre; his face is familiar in France from Chevignon ads, and – with a shaved head – he also appeared as one of the youth -the most destructive and most fetishized one – of “Le Clan” (2004) that was released in English as “Three Dancing Slaves” ). The footage of the masses circling the Kaaba in Mecca is particularly impressive.