Up close and personal with Abdellatif Kechiche

French-Tunisian Abdellatif Kechiche, one of SIFF 2008's three Emerging Masters, started as an actor but turned in 2000 to writing and directing films about North African immigrants in France. Like fellow Emerging Master Fatih Akin, Kechiche makes world-class art out of cross-cultural division and assimilation. Think globalization, not of trade goods but of emotional and spiritual sustenance.

In Kechiche's movie worlds, character trumps plot every time. If you suffer from cinematic ADD, you'll have trouble sitting still for this director's slow, circuitous exposure of complex humanity, as he encourages us to see ourselves in people we might otherwise write off as irremediably alien. His storylines in the two films on view here - teens putting on a play, a superannuated port-laborer opening a boat-restaurant - exist primarily to advance our understanding of place and players, emotional losses and gains.

About one-third of the way through "The Secret of the Grain" (2007), an extended family of French-Tunisians gathers for a big Sunday dinner. The main course is famously delicious fish couscous, lovingly prepared by the matriarch of the tribe. Kechiche's camera darts about, catching each distinctive face in close-up, as the guests eat and gab with equal gusto. It's as though you're seated at the table, your eyes following the rhythms of communal, yet idiosyncratic, communication.

After a while, you stop craving American-style accelerated action, and succumb to the surprising pleasure of breaking bread with a close-knit family, savoring how these "foreign" folk look and speak and connect with one another. Thanks to Kechiche's up-close-and-personal style - and the sheer, wonderful duration of the scene - the distance between us and these personable Arabs disappears.

"Games of Love and Chance," the director's second film, features a community of teens who live in dreary housing projects outside Paris. Typically, Kechiche concentrates on faces and feelings, human landscapes of passion and individuality so richly diverse they totally background the unprepossessing environment.

At one point, some kids meet in a sort of latterday amphitheater, stone steps curving halfway around a grassy flat in a cheerless little park. They've gathered to rehearse an 18th-century Marivaux play, a comedy of manners about the impossibility of escaping one's socioeconomic destiny. Blond, lissome Lydia, a budding diva, is late and Frida, a dark, frizz-maned Arab beauty, is seriously angry. Pitch-and-catch rants eventuate, ripe with down-and-dirty slang and rising tempers. The others - especially melancholy Krimo, smitten with the lovely Lydia - play rapt audience to the two "stars" as they act out a scene as stylized as any in Marivaux.

And then, with scarcely a pause, Lydia elides into her dramatic role, energetically fluttering a fan, flirting archly with her Harlequin. This magical segue, from North African adolescent volatility to sophisticated French sex-and-social satire, is both startling and seamless, signaling an almost enchanted continuity.

Running through Kechiche's immigrant tales is an undercurrent of melancholy, a sense of something lost (the old homeland?) even as new identity is achieved. In both "Games" and "Grain," isolated souls unable to speak or otherwise express their inner needs fall by the wayside, while the lively women they love - actress and dancer - find themselves through superb physical performance. In Kechiche's New Land, contrary to convention and stereotype, his Arab heroines throw off metaphorical burqas to act out with intoxicating purpose, energy and style.[[In-content Ad]]