A love story against a backdrop of civil war, Skies of Lebanon has a decided artistic and poetic bent.
It is the 1950s and despite not speaking a word of Arabic, Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) leaves her straitlaced existence in Switzerland for a nannying job in Beirut. In a café she meets and falls for a gentle rocket scientist, Professor Joseph Kamar (Wajdi Mouawad*) and he for her, the pair initially communicating in French. His extended family is delighted with the match and welcome Alice with open arms. It’s not long before the pair is married and welcomes newborn Mona into their lives.
Alice embraces the Lebanese lifestyle and enjoys the environment, finding work as a sketch artist. But the murmur of discontent in the streets grows louder, as street fights give way to gunfire and explosions in downtown Beirut in the ‘70s, resulting in civil war. This is a test for all Lebanese, including the Kamar family. Most of the extended clan move in with Alice, Joseph and Mona. Joseph remains determined, at all costs, to plough ahead with his project to get a Lebanese into space, but the danger is increasing. Joseph and Alice have stopped having fun and they don’t laugh together anymore.
Skies of Lebanon is the work of screenwriters Yacine Badday and Chloe Mazlo, with the latter directing. Mazlo was inspired by stories her grandmother told her about life during the Lebanese Civil War.
I spent the first 15 minutes scratching my head wondering what I had let myself in for. But then the story picked up a gear. Alice’s back story was dealt with by stop motion animation and her arrival in Lebanon with postcard backdrops. Once we were introduced to the extended Lebanese family, it took on more of a conventional narrative, but not without continued creative flourishes. These included a couple of short-lived dance sequences. A beautiful piano-based soundtrack by Bachar Khalife is evident even as the unrest is propagated.
I appreciated the craftsmanship involved in Skies of Lebanon, which shows ingenuity. There’s a lightness of touch and naïveté about its look and feel, notwithstanding the way it drives home the destabilising impact of war. All the key players are well cast and endearing. While the juxtaposition of backgrounds between Alice and Joseph is obvious, a warm inclusive dynamic drives the action.
Skies of Lebanon touched me and left a lasting impression. It also marks Mazlo – who had previously only written and directed shorts – as a talent to be watched closely.
*Wajdi Mouawad is the author of the play Incendies, which was the source material for Denis Villeneuvre’s extraordinary 2010 film.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.