Bright, personable and go-ahead, Mourad ben Saoud tries to make his way in French society. But he was born in Algeria and the path to a job, and even a home of his own, is blocked by prejudice. Reinventing himself as Dino Fabrizzi, he finds doors open, beckoning him to a successful career in car sales on the Riviera. He dresses sharply, moves into a dream flat and is not aware that something is missing from his double life until his father, seriously ill, begs him to observe Ramadan in his honour. The sickbed plea inspires another dramatic change in Dino as he makes a return to his true identity.
Hopelessly far-fetched? Not in the essential detail. While the director Olivier Baroux hardly misses a trick in bringing simple human appeal to a tricky core subject, there are echoes of art imitating life. While French cinema-goers may smile at the moments of levity in Baroux's film, L'Italien, the more tolerant and aware among them can also recognise uncomfortable truths about their country's failure to assimilate its large and mostly North African Muslim population.
And Kad Merad, the actor whose warm, expressive performance as Mourad/Dino is the film's richest asset, was able to draw on family history for a key part of his character. On arrival with his family in France in the 1960s, from the north-western Algerian city of Sidi bel Abbès, Merad's father had made the conscious decision to change his own name from Mohamed to Rémi. Nor was this such a rare act. In a recent programme on discrimination in public life, produced by the state-run France 2 channel, Fatiha Benatsou, a senior admininistrator with responsibility for equal opportunities in the Val d'Oise département on the fringe of Paris, admitted that she, too, had given herself a European-sounding name, Katia, to avoid discrimination when young.
On any assessment of the experiences of Arab and African immigrants to France, the wonder is not that so many should go to unusual lengths to hide their identity. It is that so few resort to such tactics. During my own first visit to a volatile banlieue in Seine-Saint-Denis, where Benatsou grew up, I was told of numerous cases of North African graduates failing even to get interviews for jobs for which they were eminently qualified in every respect, other than their names and ethnic origin.
Many French people stand up nobly to discrimination and were horrified when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the veteran leader of the anti-immigration Front National was heard telling an interviewer: "I bought a house in the country so my children who live in the 15th arrondissement [a district of Paris] can see cows instead of Arabs." But as the France 2 documentary demonstrated, the problem shows no sign of abating. One case study dealt with the plight of a young policeman of Maghrebin background who had been denied a promotion. Despite impeccable performances in earlier stages of the process, he fell at the final hurdle: an interview by a panel of senior officers who asked wholly irrelevant questions about his roots and his faith.
Outside the Grande Mosquée of Paris nine months ago, another Parisian policeman, born in France to Moroccan parents, stopped to talk to me about a government-led national debate on national identity. "The question should not be 'what does it mean to be French?' but 'do you feel French?'," said Mohamed, 31. "And I am afraid that I do not. There are many reasons, but above all it's a matter of my appearance and my name. In France, I am not considered French but in my parents' home country, I am not considered Moroccan. It is as if I have no identity."
At least in the case featured in the television report, France's official body for combating discrimination came down on the policeman's side and, as a result, he will soon have another chance to rise in his career. But it was disconcerting to learn that of 10,000 cases examined by the authority, 1,500 involved complaints against administrators of national and regional government, from education to the military.
In L'Italien, Kad Merad's character is also in line for promotion. His boss prefers him to his French rival for the post. Then the rival catches Dino, increasingly devout since his father's solemn entreaties, at prayer. The discovery strengthens his own candidacy, and he falsely accuses his colleague of undermining a major deal with potential Qatari buyers. Cinema-goers are left in no doubt: Dino is the "goodie", his French work rival the selfish, unscrupulous, and perhaps also racist, "baddie". Although the film has been generally well received, some aspects of the plot have led to suggestions that L'Italien is shallow.
The review in Variety, an important voice in the film industry, was severe: "A decently pitched but poorly handled dramedy about an Arab man who, in order to get ahead in France, pretends he's called Dino Fabrizzi and his favourite dessert tiramisu. That's pretty much the level of wit in this throwaway effort ... which could have been a hilariously pointed critique of Gallic society but instead traffics in cultural clichés and easy sentiments, wrapped in a TV-style production."
Baroux, now directing a comedy about a family who win the lottery and decide to become part of the Monaco rich set, is unmoved. "I pay absolutely no heed to press reviews or comments left at websites," he says. "I make my choices and have no need for anyone else to challenge them. To shoot a film requires two years of hard work. When the film is finished, it is offered to the public and it is for them to make it a success or not."
During the preparation of L'Italien, Baroux talked often to French people of North African origin. "All told the same story," he says. "They have to show remarkable pragmatism. Employers do not want to read a CV from Mohamed if they also have ones from Gilles and Jean Luc." Baroux hopes racism in France is confined to a minority. "I mean an ordinary racism, linked to ignorance and the misunderstanding of other people, a racism that passes from generation to generation and is based on nothing. Who is to blame? The media, politicians, France's colonial history? It would take me more than one page to reply."
In the film, Dino is reminded by his mother: "When we arrived in France, they didn't ask us to integrate, just not to be a nuisance." It is a remark that, for Baroux, sums up life for many immigrant families: effectively "do not disturb". Not surprisingly, Baroux shares the view that Merad handled the lead role to perfection. "Kad was my first choice," he declares. "Other actors could have played Mourad without problem, but Kad brought complete engagement to the role ...
"That, I believe, was the starting point for everything. When I received the original script, I immediately thought back to the story of the father of Kad. And when I talked to Kad, he said yes immediately to the film." Baroux accepts that L'Italien is more than "just a film", though he does not feel the director's role is to deliver lessons in morality. "I opted to treat an important social issue with humour. I have always believed you can get away with a lot with humour. All the same, I am conscious that my role is to entertain, not to lecture," he says.
Although he professes to care nothing about the views of others, Baroux may be interested in the thoughts of Cyril, another young product of the Parisian banlieues. Cyril is 28. His mother is Algerian, his father French. Both parents also felt their son would fare better with a French-sounding name, and Cyril believes they were right. He has seen and enjoyed L'Italien. "I thought it was a good film because it raised things that need to be raised, but in an intelligent but also funny way," he says.
Cyril is due to marry next year; his bride-to-be has no Maghrebin roots. "I do hope that with so many mixed relationships in France, the future will be brighter in terms of integration," he says. "But the idea of the French as racist, apart from extreme right, is exaggerated. For the most part, I find them tolerant." This may be a rosier impression than the one left by the France 2 report on institutionalised discrimination. Whether such works as L'Italien can help break down remaining prejudice is also open to question. But despite the dismissive Variety review, the public's reaction to the film may offer some small ground for optimism.
If L'Italien is no blockbuster, a total cinema audience nudging 1.1 million in its first seven weeks amounts to a respectable box office result. The film's distributor Pathé says no decision has been made on whether the film will be released in the English-speaking world, or indeed in the Gulf or Maghreb.But Baroux declares himself "very satisfied" with viewing figures and expects healthy DVD sales. He is even more pleased with the way his film has been received by people of Maghrebin origin.
He senses general approval of the moving portrayal of Dino/Mourad's relationship with his father. Even more heartening, in an age of tension that has recently seen France adopt a state of high alert, is the impact of another feature of the film on people accustomed to seeing their existence viewed in pejorative terms. "The reaction of Muslims I have met has been positive," says Baroux. "They were delighted to hear the phrase 'God is great' used in a film that wasn't about war or terrorism."