Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 20, 2022 7:27 am 
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A granddaughter's fanciful depiction of Lebanon's tragic civil war

Along with warm and "normal" roles like the wife in her sister's prize-winning The Wonders Alba Rohrwacher has been cast exploiting her slightly ghostly look, as Tilda Swinton's lesbian daughter in Guadagnino's 2009 I Am Love and a trans person who goes from female to male and back again, never quite convincingly, in Bispuri's 2015 Sworn Virgin. But she is somehow central to Italian culture, being in 79 films and currently the authorial narrator voice of the TV "My Brilliant Friend." It seems as much her oddball side, at first, anyway, that fits in Skies of Lebanon, the quaint, off-kilter tale of an Italian Swiss woman who comes to Beirut in the fifties as an au pair, marries a sweet and solemn (and older) local rocket scientist she meets in a cafe, and in 1975 reluctantly returns to her native Switzerland to escape Lebanon's civil war.

Lebanese-Canadian writer, director, actor Wajdi Mouawad, as the rocket scientist husband, lends a certain wan gravitas and soulfulness to this movie, but it sets things off kilter with Mazlo's random use of oddball, unrealistic mediums: stop-motion animation, figures posing in front of large photo backdrops, to tell the first part of the story in 20 minutes. The rest of the time it's more conventional, but the sense of unreality lingers. This may be intentional, as if to ask, How can a country self-destructing itself like this be real? But it is real, and the oddity of this intro seems, in retrospect, overbearing and self-destructive.

Chloé Mazlo, is 38 and was born west of Paris in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Rolland Garros, home of the French Open. She trained as an animator and has won a César, the French Oscar, for one of her shorts, and this first feature received generally good reviews in France, 3.7 on AlloCiné (74%). Sophie Grassin wrote in the review L'Obs that this is a film that "cries out its faith in the power of cinema and is full of ideas. People will respond to that differently. It felt a bit to me like Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. Playing with cinema while talking of how your grandparents lives were disrupted in the two-year first phase of the 15-year Lebanese civil war seems ill suited to quirky, inventive visual tricks. Mazlo has the best of intentions and seeks to follow her own path, but gets lost.

When she gets to the phase of the couple's marriage, some 20 years on, in 1975 - the bulk of the film, most of the stop-motion and other devices are dropped, though not entirely: Alice's break with her Swiss family is shown by her cutting "roots" stuck to her foot with scissors after talking to them on the phone ("mon dieu quelle mauvaise idée!" an AlloCiné spectator remarks). Perhaps having ten relatives move into the couple's Beirut apartment after the war begins is an intentional exaggeration. It's another event in the film that somehow trivializes the horrors of war.

For all the "faith in the power of cinema," the most emotionally resonant passages of Skies of Lebanon are ones done in a flat, straightforward style. They are the times when there is hope and Alice determines to stay in her adopted country and then the bombs and the invading militia men get closer and closer. We feel this, the tragedy as well as the scariness of it, and yes, the unreality. And for all that, anyone who cares about modern Arab history should see this film.

Skies of Lebanon/Sous le ciel d'Alice 92 mins., debuted as part of the transplanted pandemic Cannes festival at Angoulême Aug. 30, 2020, in the Critics Week section. It also showed at other festivals including Edinburgh, where it got some English-language reviews. Dekanalog is distributing it in the US starting Friday, July 22, 2022 at IFC Center, NYC IFC Center on the 22nd and Santa Monica's Laemmle Theaters Monica the week after and a national release following that and release on VOD November 1st.

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