Back in the '60s, when Omar Sharif was crossing the desert in Lawrence of Arabia and crossing the tundra in Dr. Zhivago, Pauline Kael called him "the least dashing and explosive of romantic stars." She was right. Sharif never dashed anywhere, even when he was in a hurry. Instead, he stood there looking dark and mysterious while, say, Barbra Streisand ran circles around him in Funny Girl. When Sharif's career petered out, he devoted himself to bridge, becoming one of the world's top players. And it's this cards-to-the-chest Sharif that's on display in Monsieur Ibrahim, FranÃois Dupeyron's sentimental film about a Turkish grocer who befriends a teenage boy (Pierre Boulanger) on one of Paris' hooker-happy side streets during the mid-'60s. At 71, Sharif can't rely on his looks anymore, especially since Ibrahim is a stubble-bearded, gap-toothed codger. But there's a wily aspect to his performance that suggests something going on behind those penetrating eyes.
That there turns out to be not much going on behind those penetrating eyes shouldn't be held against Sharif, who's been saddled with one of those Yoda-like wisdom-of-the-ages roles. Ibrahim is a Sufi Muslim, which is exotic to Boulanger's Momo, who's Jewish. But Ibrahim's also a father figure for a boy whose own father has abandoned his paternal duties. The movie's best scenes are early on, when the old man and the soon-to-be young man are discovering each other. Momo's been paying for sex with the prostitutes who hawk their wares along Rue Bleue, and Ibrahim helps him through this rite of passage, as often as not by citing the Koran. It's all very sweet and ecumenical, and we're touched by Momo's affection for Ibrahim, but we're never given much of an explanation for why Ibrahim is so interested in Momo, whom he eventually adopts. Sharif's shifty line readings suggest all sorts of things, but the lines themselves are full of peace, love and understanding.