Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Aug 09, 2022 8:40 am 
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SALEH BAKRI, NADINE LABAKI IN COSTA BRAVA, LEBANON

A family lives off the grid, but the grid comes calling

Some of Mounia Akl's film is vague or ill-judged, but it has the authenticity and beauty of a very special place and people, which the actors, the direction, and the lovely cinematography bring out rather perfectly. Lebanon is a heartbreaking, sweet little country. I first visited it, with my best friend of the time, years before the fifteen-year civil war to end all civil wars, and even then there were big holes in walls from previous conflicts. But the place had its own very special vibrant Mediterranean, European, yet distinctly Arab spirit. One sat on sunny balconies strewn with vines, ate special, healthy local breakfasts, drove to cool retreats in the mountains among the cedars. The Beiruti drivers were the craziest in the world. The streets full of shops had a way of regenerating themselves after whatever financial or martial disaster. Many people spoke a baffling mixture of French and that lilting Lebanese Arabic, also unique, though close to the Syrian variety. All this flows into Mounia's brave, quirky dystopian tale about living in retreat from the disorder and disaster of Beirut.

The film's intro title says it's sometime in "the near future" but things are bad enough in Lebanon and Beirut now. The story line concerns a utopian escape that fails. Walid (Saleh Bakri of The Band's Visit and other important films) and Souraya (Nadine Labaki, director of the - questionable - Cannes and Oscar-winning Capernaum and other films) are a couple who have lived eight years up in the hills away from their native Beirut to escape its conflicts and disasters with their two daughters, little Rim (played by twin sisters Geana and Seana Restom) and 17-year-old Tala (Nadia Charbel). This is a statement of protest and Walid and Souraya met at demonstrations in the city. He was a political leader; she was a famous pop singer. Where they have retreated is the property of Walid’s expat sister Alia (Yumna Marwan),who lives in Colombia. With them is Walid's unwell but indomitable and outspoken mother Zeina (Liliane Chacar Khoury) who alternately smokes and takes gulps from an oxygen tank.

Now the shit sort of literally hits the fan. A danger of living off the grid you won't encounter in downtown Manhattan is that unspoiled places are where the developers go. I believe I once read of the beat poet Gary Snyder encountering this danger in his own life. This appears to be the time of the 2015 Beirut Garbage Crisis. Suddenly it turns out the city government, which suddenly hauls a huge, hideous faux-primitive statue of the president and sets it nearby, has appropriated the adjoining land for a landfill and is starting to resolve Beirut's waste disposal problem by hauling it up here. It's supposed to be a new, ecological treatment but Walid is sure it won't be, and he seems to be right.

It's a "situation" the film is about, more than any action, and some of the actions don't come off very well while the atmosphere does splendidly. This is most of all about this family, and the Lebanese spirit, the way they go on fighting and living. There is a good-sized swimming pool, and they swim in it. Tala is sexually coming of age, or she thinks she is. Her evening attempt to seduce Tarik (François Nour), a young civil engineer now stationed next door for the waste disposal, is very awkward, and Walid's violent punishment of her is inexplicable and inappropriate. Arguably none of the details of the landfill or Walid's attempt to fight it is convincing. But what Atl conveys is the nervous courage of little Rim, with her perpetual counting as a stay against confusion; the spirit and astonishing youthfulness of grandma Zeina, the loving conflicts of the power couple of Walid and Souraya, and the sunlight and beauty of the place.

In the family scenes, whose intimacy is where this movie sings, the camera often shoots contre-jour, into the light, making everything sparkling and fresh. These folks don't weave French into their conversation. The Arabic dialogue is simple and direct in a way that somehow makes arguments seem intimate and sweet, as if the fighting is a familiar kind of play. There is also something distinctively Lebanese in how Walid, even in this isolated place, can immediately get on a contraband smart phone and call a top lawyer or city authority. This is a country so small that our incompetent Syrian taxi driver, who brought us from Damascus, drove us all the way around it twice before he found Beirut.

In her informed Variety review Jessica Kiang says shooting of this film began just a couple of months after the August 2020 Beirut Port explosion that killed over 200 and sent Lebanon "into a tailspin of trauma" such as "it hadn’t known since the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990." But the Middle East is a different world from the West in which a spirit of constant conflict reigns and somehow perversely thrives. Time once called Lebanon's ultra-divided sectarian political system "Byzantine": it's a giant Rube Goldberg twittering machine that can't possibly work yet blithely teeters on. Such is the spirit of the family in Costa Brava, Lebanon, and its the way debut director Mounia Atl captures this that makes the film special - and a contrast to the relatively prim Skies of Lebanon.

Costa Brava, Lebanon, 106 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 5, 2021, also showing at London, Toronto, and other festivals. It opened July 15, 2022 at the Quad Cinema in New York and July 22 at the Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles. The film also opens Sept. 2, 2022 in the S.F. Bay Area at the Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael, CA. The distributor is Kino Lorber. Watched online for this review Aug. 8. on pay-for-view Kino Marquee. Rating on Metacritic 81%. French release July 27, AlloCiné press rating 3.4 (68%).

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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