Signifying "road movie" from the onset, Ismaël Ferroukhi's directorial debut Le Grand Voyage takes us on a remarkable journey from southern France through Italy, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Turkey to eventually arrive at Mecca. One the five pillars of Islam is to make a pilgrimage (hadj) to Mecca, so a devout Muslim father (Moroccan actor Mohamed Majd) determines that the time is right to make the journey by automobile—the inevitable obstacles deem this more righteous than using plane or boat (his father had once set off on a mule).
When his more traditional oldest son loses his driver's license, the elderly patriarch must rely on teen aged son Reda (Nicolas Cazalé). Non-religious, Westernized, and attached to his non-Muslim girlfriend Lisa, Reda has no desire to transport his father 6,000 miles round trip. The gulf goes beyond the typical generation gap. They've never connected—culturally or religiously—and the ride begins with long uncomfortable silences, as Reda dangerously speeds along the highway attempting to shorten the journey.
After the first night, the father demands country roads less traveled, trusting that they will reach their destination as long as the car remains pointed towards Mecca. He reminds his son that they are NOT tourists, so no side trips to Milan, Venice, or anywhere else that delays the hadj unnecessarily. Further breaking off from Western civilization and forcing his son deal with him, the father tosses his son's cell phone in the garbage—an act that all of us can relate to.
One interesting contrast between the pair is reflected by two hitchhiking passengers—an elderly traditional Muslim woman who speaks no French (or any other language they know) and a friendly French-speaking man named Mustapha (Jacky Nercessian) who helps them cross the Turkish border. There's a mystical quality about the woman that makes Reda uncomfortable, so he finds a way to abandon her against his father's advice. On the other hand, Mustapha totally charms Reda but not his father. He's immediately suspicious, and accuses Mustapha of stealing all their money after he had taken Reda out for a drinking binge. The father cites this as a clear example that his son knows nothing about Life—a blow to Reda's confidence initially, but ironically drawing him closer to his father. In fact, both hitchhikers must be dispensed with to allow the father and son a chance to reconcile.
The well cast actors hit their marks in this traditional tale about father-son estrangement and eventual acceptance and reconciliation, and the narrative is constructed economically. Sometimes too much so—I'd still like to know how they extricated themselves from an overnight mountain blizzard. The mysterious Muslim lady also reappears fleetingly but that thread is dropped after that encounter. But it's better that the filmmaker leave a few loose ends than fill the narrative with too much clutter. It would have been all too easy for the father to give a lengthy discourse about the spiritual significance of the hadj when his son finally asks, but he thankfully answers tersely—letting the film's finale respond silently and memorably.
Despite the predictability of the narrative and its formulaic message, Le Grand Voyage remains a very worthwhile film. Serving as a travelogue that may spark more interest in Istanbul, the film's final scenes in Mecca are truly awe-inspiring. Few have ever been allowed to record the throngs of committed Muslims circling the Kaaba for a commercial film. Indelibly engraving these images into the film's concluding scenes, Ferroukhi respectfully captures the essence of the hadj. After witnessing how strongly the father feels about completing this spiritual journey, the wide-angled shot of the praying masses truly is overwhelming. By far the strongest part of the film, these scenes alone endow value on a project that ordinarily would remain consigned to a few film festivals. Props to Film Movement for offering this simple story on DVD to grant us intimate access to a Muslim pilgrimage.