Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 07, 2016 7:35 am 
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Drugs, pizza, movies and politics go together in Beirut

Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya's debut feature takes its protagonist wittily from drug dealing and petty gangsterism in Beirut into politics by way of film production. The wordplay and touch of silliness in the title tip us off that this is a comedy, which might not be so obvious in some in-your-face violent early scenes wherein the older of three brothers, Ziad Haddad (co-writer Alain Saadeh), who is feisty, to put it mildly, does kill some people, five years apart. For the first violence, which explodes onto the screen without the bother of titles, brother Jad (Wissam Fares) takes the five-year fall.

Respectability really is their aim. At least Ziad wants to sell their father's house to set Jad up in a small restaurant, while long-haired, soulful-faced Joe (Tarek Yaacoub), a dutiful striver who never wants to leave that house, runs the little family pizza delivery hut in a working class neighborhood of Beirut that's a cover for a drug dealership: the "cheese" packets in the "special" pizzas contain cocaine. But Ziad's "ex" druglord boss insists he take a last run to Syria and this goes awry, leaving Ziad with a very large stash of the amphetamine Captagon. Jad insists on being counted in on this boon. It could make them rich if they can just get it out of the country.

A solution comes through one of their "special" pizza customers who is in arrears, the chubby, bespectacled Charbel (Fouad Yammine), who makes documentary films. When Ziad's at Charbel's to strong-arm him into paying up, he glimpses a documentary Charbel's making about a Lebanese filmmaking oldtimer who's telling a story about how some Italians smuggled drugs in film canisters, using an exemption from X-raying undeveloped film. But to get the permit from authorities, it's got to be a real movie, and Ziad commandeers Charbel to make it. Charbel chooses a long-cherished project, a feature about a Christian girl married to a Muslim guy.

The movie now becomes a larky tale with elements of Argo and Bullets Over Broadway. Hilariously, first Joe, then Jad is called in to play the guy. What's really funny is how easily the petty gangster Ziyad morphs into ruthless movie producer, with Charbel spinelessly agreeing to any and all script changes because the money is good. Charbel seems like a fidgety bundle of nerves yelling at the talentless actors at first, but turns out to have the energy and knowledge to make a feature, after all -- more or less. Some dramatic mishaps and neighborhood fracases get the production in the news, and Ziyad begins to glimpse the fame and power movies can lead to. Early on Charbel has protested Lebanon's film industry has "many talents, but only few opportunities to explore" but Ziyad has scoffed that not "one actor here" can be "compared to Sylvester Stallone." But Ziyad is getting opportunities to appear on the nightly news and boast that there is a political plot against the making of "his" film.

That might, of course, be true: a mixed Muslim-Christian marriage could be a hot topic for a Lebanese movie. But the trouble is actually coming from the drug bosses, who may not know what Ziad is up to with the movie-making, but suspect he's kept the amphetamines and are using extreme measures to get them back. How that all turns out we never learn, but the next time Ziad appears on TV he is a nice suit looking presidential: he's on the way to the top. The filmmakers are very good at turning the excitement and chaos of the film-within-a-film into hilarity with satirical overtones. I was reminded of some of the great Fifties Italian caper comedies. The tiny pizza shop and back alleys and macho arguments are very Beirut, though. Alain Saadeh is so intense and real as a petty gangster you may not see this as a comedy at all at first, but Ziad's passion convincingly, and amusingly, carries over into filmmaking, then fame and public respectability. I can imagine their loving this film at the big film festival in London, with its substantial Lebanese population. Very Big Shot may have some structural and tonal rough spots, but there's no doubt how well it could work for local audiences.

Very Big Shot/فيلم كتير كبير (Film Kteer Kbeer), 107 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2015, then London Oct.; also Thessaloniki, Göteborg; theatrical releases in Gulf countries. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Apr. 2016.

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