Capernaum (2018)

Direction: Nadine Labaki
Country: Lebanon / France / USA

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third feature, Capernaum, is a heart-rending drama focused on the shocking realities of both poor slum inhabitants and migrants living in Beirut. Labaki’s past works has been consistent (Caramel; Where Do We Go Now?), but her directorial career reaches a pinnacle with this saddening tale co-written with regular collaborator Jihad Hojeily and first-time scriptwriter Michelle Keserwany.

The central character, Zain El Hajj (actual refugee Zain Al Raffeea), is a 12-year-old who besides facing the hardships of poverty and neglecting parents, takes in his own hands the responsibility of saving his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Haita Izzam) from an unacceptable marriage. She just had her first period and Assaad (Nour El Husseini), the family’s landlord and local tradesman, is ready to buy her. The kid’s parents, Selim (Fadi Yousef) and Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), see an opportunity to get a better life in this arrangement. After all, it’s one mouth less they have to feed. Tragic incidences lead Zain to be sentenced five years in prison, but what I was far from imagining is that this astute boy could sue his inconsiderate parents for bringing him into the world.

Prior to his crime and subsequent arrest, Zain had run away from home, finding support in Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethiopian woman who provides him with housing and food. In exchange, he babysits her little infant Yonas, a target for the malicious Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), whose intention is to sell him for adoption.

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Simultaneously sensitive and straightforward in her directorial methods, Labaki articulates the moral complexities of the subject matter with an equal share of fascination and depression. She got precious assistance from the pair of editors, Konstantin Bock and Laure Gardette, as well as German-Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun. And, sure thing, it's not possible to disregard the terrific performance of the young new actor, who makes a notable first appearance. Through him, Zain looks real, showing all that street wisdom that no real school would be able to teach him.

It’s all too painful and frustrating, but there are moments of true love and care. My only hesitation has to do with the too optimistic, even naive idea of justice. At once touching and infuriating, the film bursts with irrepressible sadness and deserves kudos for avoiding gratuitous sentimental deflections.

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Heaven Without People (2018)

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Directed by Lucien Bourjeily
Country: Lebanon

Who never experienced a heated discussion in those hypocrite family gatherings that tend to sour festive occasions? Lebanese writer/director/producer/editor Lucien Bourjeily imagines one of these scenarios in his feature debut “Heaven Without People”. He puts together a solid cast ensemble composed of unknown and amateur actors for this farcical representation of the Lebanese reality.

Despite struggling with inconsistencies in mood and an erratic pace, the film fires up some curious observations about the alienated state of the country, without ever reaching high levels of socio-political controversy.

Serge (Nadim Abou Samra) arrives late at his parents’ house, which was left without electricity for two days, for the long-awaited Easter celebration. He takes a new girlfriend with him: Leila (Laeticia Semaan), a Shiite who had to move to the Southern suburbs due to war. Seated at the table are Serge’s goodhearted mother, Joujou (Samira Sarkis), and self-satisfied father, Antoine (Wissam Boutros); his tense sister Rita (Farah Shaer) and her husband Rabih (Ghassan Chemali); his other sister: the submissive Christine (Nancy Karam) and her passive-aggressive husband, Elias (Jean Paul Hage); as well as his controlling aunt Noah (Jenny Gebara) and her teenage son, Sami (Toni Habib), a troublemaker.

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The handheld camera keeps moving around the table at a medium distance, and the tedious introduction of the characters is done slowly and coupled with the vapid conversation, whose topics vary from religion - with incidence on the extremism among Catholics - to corrupt politics to personal observations about some demeanors of the present. It takes a while to contextualize everyone within the family, but once done, the story flows in a more effective manner.

The hypocrisy at lunch comes to an end when the matriarch finds that 12 grand, the equivalent to a one-year salary paid to her husband in advance as a bribe, is missing from her purse. Predictably, the modest Ethiopian maid, Zoufan (Etafar Aweke), who works in the house for several years and earns only $200, is the one to be blamed.

Racism, corruption, preconception, insincerity, violence, and resentment, are all predicaments this family has to deal with. Bourjeily, who gained a reputation as a theater director, chews things up for more than an hour, only to change the course of events from casual passivity to precipitous chaos in a couple of minutes. Can a brilliant ending save a film? Sure, but I strongly feel this one could have given much more if handled with a little more subtlety.

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In Syria (2018)

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Directed by Philippe Van Leeuw
Country: Lebanon / Belgium / France

The thorns of war are brutally stinging in “In Syria”, a drama film impeccably mounted by the Belgian cinematographer turned director Philippe Van Leeuw (“The Day God Walked Away”).

The internationally known Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (“Blade Runner 2049”, “The Visitor”, “Lemon Tree”) is Oum Yazan, a courageous mother who gets trapped in her apartment in Damascus with merciless snipers surrounding the building. She is in the company of her three children, her depressed father-in-law Abou Monzer (Mohsen Abbas), her daughter’s boyfriend Karim (Elias Khatter), the housemaid, Delhani (Juliette Navis), and a recently married couple, Samir (Moustapha Al Kar) and Halima (Diamand Bou Abboud), who live in the apartment above hers but were forced to move out when a bomb hit their living room. This couple has a newborn to protect and the perilous situation they’re going through doesn’t leave them a better option than fleeing from the city. After all, food and water are not abundant, and the place is constantly under menace.

With her husband away on a mission and numerous roadblocks hampering the free circulation, Oum uses all the matriarch’s authority to make sure everyone obeys her strict orders, especially in the case of a sudden attack. However, despite her tenacity and controlling nature, there was nothing she could do to prevent Salim to go out and be shot, after which he was left in the parking lot. Another helpless situation occurred when two men broke into the apartment and caught a resistless Halima off-guard. 

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In the throes of this harrowing, devastating scenario, the slightest good-natured and funny circumstance, even very limited in number, is felt as an urgent gratification. Thus, it was quite comforting to see the beautiful relationship and strong bond between Abou and his naughty grandson, who loves to prank him from time to time.

Shot in Lebanon, this splendidly acted film - some of the non-professional actors are real Syrian refugees - replicates the daily horrors lived by those threatened with their lives, and concludes with the disquiet uncertainties with which the Syrian people currently endure. Anger, guilt, and anguish become inevitably present in a tumultuous, anarchic world that every true man should be ashamed of.

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The Insult (2018)

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Directed by Ziad Doueiri
Country: Lebanon / France / other

The Insult” is a drama film immersed in political complexity and racial antagonism. It was directed by Ziad Doueiri (“The Attack”), who co-wrote with Joelle Touma, and stars Adel Karam and Kamel El Basha as a Christian Lebanese and a Palestinian refugee, respectively, who, taking their pride to an extreme, have their personal squabble taken to court.

The story is set in Beirut, where Toni Hanna (Karam) runs a car garage with the help of his expecting wife Shirine (Rita Hayek). He is an angered Lebanese who tries to cope with a traumatic childhood pelted with the violence of war. Yesser Salameh (El Basha) is a competent, hardworking Palestinian foreman who works legally for a local construction company and lives in a refugee camp mounted for those known as ‘the niggers of the Arabs’. Their destinies cross, not without friction, when construction begins on the road where Toni lives.

The provocative Toni certainly doesn’t look for peace when he confronts Yesser, who, in response, insults him with a simple “fucking prick”. Curiously, it’s not the weight of the words that causes indignation but who is saying those words. The local man demands an apology, a very difficult step for Yesser, who lives with the feeling that every Lebanese look down on him. In this particular situation, he is right because Toni humiliates him once more. The exasperated Yesser loses his temper and uses violence in an uncontrolled impulse, sending Toni to the hospital with two broken ribs.

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The men end up in a legal dispute, where the question about who is the aggressor and who is the victim emerges. Verbal racism has to be proved, so Yesser can continue living in the country that shelters him. Judge Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Boy Abboud) is the one to defend him and prove his innocence. She finds herself in a tug-of-war with her own father, the more experienced pre-Christian Judge Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh). The media attention around the story increases the tension between Christian Lebanese and Palestinians, attaining unimaginable proportions to the point of requiring the President’s intervention.
 
The Insult” was built with uneven scenes that routinely sway between perspicacious and debilitated. Doueiri opted to mix the emotional-conversational approach of Asghar Farhadi with mediocre courtroom scenes. I got a clear notion that I was being manipulated on several occasions without being given real answers. 

Notwithstanding, considerable insight about the open wounds left by a devastating Middle East crisis was gleaned. And these wounds are not the most obvious. 
While the direction was unexceptional, the credible performances elevated a film trying to justify the acts of its characters through a chain of emotional states that relate to trauma, loss, rancor, prejudice, and violence.

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The Attack (2012)

The Attack (2012) - Movie Review
Directed by: Ziad Doueiri
Country: Lebanon / France / others

Movie Review: Former first assistant cameraman turned director Ziad Doueiri gives us a completely different angle on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seen from the perspective of a respected Arab surgeon who lost his beloved wife in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, where they worked and lived. But “The Attack”, based on the novel by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra, is not as simple as that, because the said woman was accused to be responsible for the bombing and consequently for the death of 17 people. In shock and denial, Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), decides to search for the truth in Palestinian territory, getting exposed to perils he wasn’t prepared for. The idea wasn’t bad at all but a better success was hampered by the lack of suspense and the option to discard any type of artistic approach. Thus, the questions aroused by the sensitive thematic were depicted in a raw and talkative manner, only interrupted from times to times by Amin’s recollections of some key moments with his wife, and the sad confirmation of reality. Episodic use of handheld camera efficiently gives the sensation of despair and confusion in Amin’s head, in this thoughtful thriller, which counted with an unshakable performance by Ali Suliman (“Paradise Now”, “Lemon Tree”). Auspicious and thought provoking, “The Attack” was never totally involving, but can be seen as a movie of considerable cleverness.

Where Do We Go Now? (2011)

Directed by: Nadine Labaki
Country: Lebanon / others

Plot: A group of Lebanese women try to ease religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in their village.
Review: Battle of religions is the main subject in Nadine Labaki’s new movie. Fights between Christians and Muslims are eminent in a small Lebanese village, just when a group of girls arrive from East Europe. A movie made of laughs, tears and music/dance, which sometimes breaks the mood and somehow discredits the message to pass. We can complain about the abrupt tragic-comic changes of the plot but the biggest sin of Labaki was not to be able of balancing the heavy and light stuff in the right way. Nadine and her sister Caroline (costume design), also participate as actresses.
Relevant awards: Special mention (Cannes); audience award (Oslo and Toronto).