Skies Of Lebanon

****1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Skies Of Lebanon
"A period piece, shot in Cyprus, it's full of detail that shows care and consideration."

As with any film not in English there's a liberty taken with the title. Technically these are not the skies of Lebanon, but "Sous La Ciel D'Alice", "under the skies of Alice'". It's not that they do not shine on the cedar coast, but importantly to the film on Alice, who from Switzerland is transported to wonder. Landing in Beirut she is greeted by the Cedar, one of several figures whose presence in this Mediterranean locale is between that of a chorus and genius loci.

This is an astonishing bit of craft, a tour de force of filmmaking technique. Costume, character, set, style, I was minded of the arch-ness of Wes Anderson but there's something less cynical here. It may be the framing, the film is as happy here to use doors as both metaphor and material as, say, Pig, though not as mythic with it. It also never feels like it is looking down on its proceedings, even when the camera is high above. This is a film that gazes up, in awe, that does not seek to look back, but to move on.

Copy picture

ChloƩ Mazlo's direction is assured, co-writing with Yacine Badday she has created something that charms and delights. There's a moment with a warming heart that melted mine. A period piece, shot in Cyprus, it's full of detail that shows care and consideration. This beyond the glee I felt to see people 'travel by map' as the Muppets would have it, to see painted backgrounds, sets staged to recall the stage, stop-motion animation and interpretative dance. Badday has worked on several documentaries about filmmaking, this is Mazlo's debut feature and it is clear that both have talent. This is a treat.

Their background in short film might inform the pace at which things unfold. This is packed with incident, it made me think of Two Cents Worth Of Hope, an Italian film from the 50s also shown at the 2021/74th EIFF. Not just because of the studied nature of it, Two Cents... is shot in the Italian neo-realist style with all those features, Skies of Lebanon is shot in a more pastel magical-realist style, with features from everywhere. It is a blend of influences, not the bricolage of Star Wars or the 'what has stuck to the walls' of many others but a synthesis, a melange, a marvel.

It has moments of the epistolary, exposition kept to the background in the radio, the news announcer speaking directly to the camera gives us context without it feeling didactic. There's a dance with death, a different harbinger when Kissinger's name is mentioned on the radio, the references to cease-fires skip and jump. There's a 'move' that is as delightful as the one in Sorry To Bother You and as inventive in its execution. There's a sandbagged corner, home invasion, a game of musical chairs. All with verve, panache, impact.

Alice comes to Lebanon from Switzerland, stays to marry Joseph Kamar. Alba Rohrwacher is amazing as Alice, I have seen things she is in previously but here she fills the screen with joy. Wajdi Mouawad may have fewer credits but keeps pace in a role that covers the evolution of a relationship, decades, all with charm. I don't know how to talk about how the film depicts their efforts to have children without it seeming tawdry, but the camera looks down with what I can only characterise as love. It is a moment of stork invention in a film that drips sentiment like baklava leaks honey, but with enough of an edge to avoid becoming cloying.

I adored it. Joseph is involved in the Lebanese Rocket Programme, and to my shame I did not know that it existed. Nor that, by a matter of weeks, it was the first Middle Eastern Nation to get a rocket to space. Looking into it for this review I discovered that the launch we see is accurate even to details of the pad and rack. A later rocket has some dramatic license taken, but I can and will forgive because of how it is used.

Where I have issues is in part in translation. Ever a bugbear, I can usually forgive the title because it's one of the places producers like to meddle. "Ma place d'ici", literally "my place is here", becomes "I belong here" in the subtitles. The sentiment might be on the right track, but the overtones and undercurrents don't match. A "bon voyage" becomes a "have a good trip" and while it's not wrong one wishes (as with Contact) that they had sent a poet.

Bachar Mar-Kalif provides the score in a film that features classical piano compositions and improvisations, interludes from rude mechanicals on a sandbagged street, clattering interventions that bely the peace supposedly being kept. At times melancholic, considered, it never feels ponderous. It streaks along in a scant hour and a half and is as finely engineered as any of the rockets it depicts. It is perhaps a metaphor too far to talk about how it accelerates in stages but it lets us consider the balance between the parabola and the proscenium. Aiming for the skies, this is a play for the eyes.

Reviewed on: 27 Aug 2021
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Skies Of Lebanon packshot
A Swiss woman moves to Lebanon where she falls in love with an astrophysicist but their peace is threatened by the civil war.

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