West Beirut

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Direction and Screenplay: Ziad Doueiri

Cast: Rami Doueiri, Mohamad Chamas, Rola Al Amin, Carmen Lebbos, Joseph Bou-Nassar, Liliane Nemri, Leila Karam, Mahmoud Mabsout

Language: Arabic, with English subtitles

*Warning: May contain spoilers, although I’ve attempted to make them cryptic

Synopsis (Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes)

It is Beirut, 1975. Tarek, Omar, and May are teenagers roaming the streets, listening to pop music and making super 8 films. School has been closed, and the city has been split into the Christian-controlled East Beirut and the Muslim militia-controlled West Beirut, where the teens live. They are forced to grow up faster in ways they had not expected as violence seizes the city and their worlds become smaller as parts of their familiar surroundings are suddenly declared “off-limits.”

***

O: “May, tell me, what do you think of Beirut?”

M: “Crazy”

O: “Very Crazy”

10 years after its release, West Beirut remains the freshest and most poignant war film that I’ve seen. Gripping performances combine with fluid camerawork and stirring music to create a very real experience; yet somehow the movie is nothing short of magical. Never has a movie better characterized the Arab mindset and sense of humor; through all the madness of war the protagonists do not lose their mischief, their joie de vivre, or their belief in Beirut.

Doueiri borrows from his personal experiences during the Lebanese Civil War to showcase the teenage Tarek’s emotional metamorphosis as the war draws on; from exuberance about freedom from school to the angst-ridden delights of first love to an all-encompassing sense of grief for the destruction of his city. Doueiri’s love for Beirut resonates throughout; in the opening sequence Tarek  drowns out the French national anthem by singing the Lebanese one through a megaphone to his adoring classmates. Simple visuals such as the bike ride to Zeytuni are stunning; I felt a rush of emotion and nostalgia as Tarek, Omar and May sped across Beirut’s boulevards to develop Omar’s Super-8 film. If this scene was so powerful to a non-Lebanese such as me, I can only enviously imagine what it would mean to a paisan.

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Colorful characters abound throughout, adding the belly-laughter and roguery essential to keep a war movie honest. Two women in particular deserve special mention. The first, the old harridan who hides her pain and disappointment at being shunned by her husband by being the nightmare of the neighbourhood; she churns out some of the most creative abuses I have ever heard (“Meet your maker and perfume your mouth before you talk about the South”). Arabic speakers will be thrilled- God, hellfire, mothers, sisters and carnage are invoked in equal measure. Umm Walid, the madam of the brothel is the other, loud-mouthed and arrogant, with a huge frame and a heart to match. She proclaims that her brothel is the only place where the divisions brought about by the war matter not ( At Umm Walid’s, it is Beirut, period!). Sadly, time will prove her wrong.

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Technical finesse and theatricality aside, West Beirut is primarily about relationships. Ziad, the husband, whose love of the land overrides his rationality, has to deal with his beautiful wife Hala’s insistence that Beirut can no longer be home. You get a sense that their love will prevail through all, but the depiction of the challenges that they face as a couple is handled with panache. Hala leaves with Tarek after a heated argument with Ziad, but minutes later when she crashes the car on the way out, Ziad is there to welcome her back with a smile and hug . At the climax they share a rare cigarette and at her insistence, he strums the oud, the traditional Arab guitar. The father/son relationship is also evocative; Ziad and Tarek are always playful,  fencing and mock-fighting while discussing profound topics such as Lebanese identity and their future. However, the standout relationship is the one between Tarek and his chum Omar, an explosive yet caring imp. They are mischievous, omni-horny boys-grinning, cigarettes lit, American music blasting, exaggerated, flowery language, grandeur, public announcements, calls out to the prophet, gestural touching of the heart, head-slapping and at the core of it all, a deep mutual affection.

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Omar is portrayed by the irresistible Mohammed Chamas, whom Doueiri found in an orphanage, and he steals the show. Impulsive, foul-mouthed and street-smart, Omar initially resents May due to his fear that she will take Tarek away from him. Eventually though, they become an inseparable trio, with the battlefields of Beirut serving as the background for their compelling friendship.

Cross-cultural influences are felt throughout the movie. From the boys’ choice of phrases (“Finito, Capish?, You drive like Steve McQueen!”) to the music they choose to chill to (George McRae’s “Rock your Baby”), it all conveys Beirut’s cosmopolitan vibe. And yet the city’s soul is Arab, a point Doueiri repeatedly drives home. The magnanimity of Mo’alim Hassan, the smart-aleck humor of a man whose car has just been totaled , the handsy but completely heterosexual mischief between Tarek and Omar, it all serves to help us understand the Arab spirit. It’s a spirit that frustrates and enthralls, that cries and chuckles, and in the case of West Beirut, makes for a mesmerizing movie.

Hit-o-meter

Plot 7 Visual 8 Music 8 Acting 9.5 Direction 9 Entertainment 8.5 ‘Feel’ 10 Overall 9

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