In the popular imagination of the West, Lebanon is most often invoked as a place of ruin and strife, not romance and enchantment. The feature film debut of filmmaker Chloé Mazlo, ‘Skies of Lebanon’, includes an intriguing pendulum swing of the performance.
Starring Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher, the film opens in 1977, when Alice, her character, leaves the country. On board a ship she begins to write a letter. In the first of many visual surprises, the film switches from mode to stop-motion animation, as Alice recounts a haunted childhood in 1950s Switzerland. After her training as an au pair, she goes as far from home as possible for an assignment: to Beirut.
The Lebanese capital is depicted here via diorama-esque frames with vintage photographs as the backdrop. The effect is a storybook. So for a while, Alice takes her baby to a small cafe every day, and there she meets Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), a charming rocket engineer whom she will fall in love with and marry.
Their life is beautiful, for a while. Alice’s extended family is delightful and the couple’s daughter, Mona, is sensitive and talented. The way the film deals with the civil war tearing Lebanon apart and ultimately shattering Alice’s world is mixed. The depiction of ordinary people trying to isolate themselves from civil war (a scene where, for example, a pajama party is interrupted by an air raid) is sharp. Showing the warring faction as two small gangs on a street corner — separated by a pile of sandbags, with fighters costumed in masks and in one case a feather boa — feels slippery. However, the candor of the film ultimately wins the day.
Skies of Lebanon
Not judged. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theatres.