Father and son wait at customs control in Le Grand Voyage
Father and son wait at customs control in Le grand voyage

I thought this film was much more interesting than some of the rather sniffy reviews that appeared at the time. Le grand voyage won various prizes around the world, including one at Venice and was then dubbed a conventional ‘festival film’ or, worse, a ‘road movie’. To be fair, however, lots of people clearly enjoyed it as much as I did. I don’t accept that recognition of a film as a road movie means that it won’t be an interesting film.

The plot is very simple. A Moroccan who has lived in France for 30 years decides that the time has come to make the hajj to Mecca. But instead of flying or going by sea to Saudi Arabia, he opts to go by car, commanding his younger son Reda to drive him. Reda is due to take his high school exams for the second time and is upset to be parted from his French girlfriend, Lisa. The pair set off in a reconditioned Peugeot estate supplied by Reda’s older brother. It is indeed a classic ‘road trip’ with two travelling companions who have little in common and barely speak to each other. Many of the elements of the road movie are covered – strange, unannounced extra passengers, comic misadventures etc. – and the overall thematic about characters learning about each other and about themselves through the adventures. Yet, it isn’t anything like an American road movie, or one across any other large country. One of the important narrative threads is the change in the sense of which of the two characters is ‘in control’ of the journey. At first Reda is comfortable driving in France and Italy – although he still has to obey his father, he is still justified in chastising the old man who gets them lost because he can’t read maps. But as they cross the Balkans it slowly becomes apparent that Reda’s French culture is less and less useful – while the father becomes more capable of sensible decision-making.

For any monoglot English speaker, it is rather chastening to think that Reda actually speaks three languages – French, some English and the Moroccan Arabic of his family. But because he has rejected Islam and his Arab heritage, he doesn’t know the classical or the ‘Egyptian Arabic’ that is more useful travelling the back roads of Syria and Jordan. His father has this and is anyway much more comfortable dealing with the farmers and local villagers they meet on the way. The last part of the film deals with the pair’s arrival in Mecca. Many of the reviews find this the most interesting part of the story – especially the crowd scenes. I’m not sure that these scenes are that unusual in news footage terms, but it is true that for a fictional story to include such scenes is very rare (probably unique). I would certainly agree that the closing scenes of the narrative are important. Once again, it’s quite interesting to compare the ending with the generic conventions of the road movie. What have the two characters learned/achieved? For me, although the personal stories were interesting, I was more taken by the commentary which emerged about the whole issue of ‘North-South’ relationships and the process of migration. For the last thirty years, the assumption has been that migrants have travelled from the ‘South’ (i.e. North Africa) to Western Europe to find employment, just as Reda’s father presumably did. But now with EU membership opening up to Eastern Europe and eventually the Balkans and Turkey, the definitions need to change. The old man, not the 2nd generation ‘French man’ who is his son, moves more freely through what might soon become the new extended Europe. Allied to this, the director, French-Moroccan Ismaël Ferroukhi  has said that he wanted to represent a new sense of the wider Muslim community – one which dealt with the majority of community-minded Muslims travelling to Mecca, not the minority involved in conflict. I think he succeeds.