A kiss is just a kiss &mdash Omar Sharif stands up for Arab-Jewish conciliation

It’s been 36 years since Omar Sharif, playing Fanny Brice’s suitor in “Funny Girl,” enraged the Arab press by kissing Barbra Streisand.

Now Sharif again gives a delectable performance opposite a Jewish character, in the resonant coming-of-age story “Monsieur Ibrahim.” Playing a Turkish shopkeeper who becomes a surrogate father to a precocious adolescent in early ’60s Paris, Sharif is unlikely to engender the same wrath — even though it’s impossible not to view the film through the prism of current Arab-Israeli relations.

“Monsieur Ibrahim” opens Friday, March 5, in the Bay Area.

“I don’t think [the film] is political,” Sharif maintained during a publicity stop in San Francisco recently. “If there were peace now between Israel and the Palestinians, it wouldn’t matter [that the boy is Jewish and the man is Muslim]. It would be irrelevant. But what makes it relevant is the fact that there is this terrible situation there, and all this hatred and bloodshed.”

Sharif was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1932, and appeared in numerous Egyptian films before his international breakthrough and Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in “Lawrence of Arabia.” His leading-man looks were also showcased in the high-profile ’60s films “Dr. Zhivago” and “Funny Girl.”

Sharif’s star has dimmed over the years, and he turns up dapper but unshaven for his interviews. But he is exceedingly kind and generous, with none of the imperiousness that movie stars of earlier generations often display.

Although he was impressed with the screenplay by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt (which the French Jewish writer adapted from his autobiographical play), Sharif confesses to an ulterior motive for making “Monsieur Ibrahim.”

“I thought that it was time for me to make my little statement” about the tense state of relations between Jews and Arabs, he said with a chuckle, “because I’m a respected person in the Middle East and the Arab world. I mean, not respected, but loved, anyway.”

Sharif laughed again. “I have some people who hate me as well, usually in the press. But I wanted to say that it is possible to love each other and to live together. It’s not some huge message, and it won’t have any effect, unfortunately.”

Religion is not an issue in “Monsieur Ibrahim,” although the shopkeeper’s foreign appearance and habits fascinate the boy, Momo. Their friendship originates with grocery transactions, then deepens as Momo finds himself in need of a father’s guidance.

The cultural and generational differences between Ibrahim and Momo fade as they forge a bond of mutual respect. Momo learns that there is more to people than meets the eye, and that an unlikely stranger can turn out to be a major influence.

It is hardly a controversial theme, and unlikely to provoke columns like those that castigated Sharif in the Egyptian press for making “Funny Girl” during the Six-Day War.

“Somebody wrote a terrible article saying this man is a traitor, take his passport away, he’s kissing Barbra Streisand who helps Israel. So the press here asked me, ‘What [do] you think about the Arab papers saying that you are a traitor?’

“I said, ‘I never ask a girl her religion or her nationality before I kiss her.'”

Sharif smiled. “They asked Barbra, ‘What do you think about the Egyptian papers saying this about Omar Sharif?’

“She said, ‘You should have seen the letter I got from my Aunt Rose about my making a film with Omar Sharif!'”

Monsieur Ibrahim” opens Friday, March 5, in the Bay Area.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.