No one is brave enough to stay.
When historical events are too complex and sprawling to do them justice in a ninety-minute film, the best thing to do is shrink the aperture. So, rather than try to cram in years’ worth of religious, political, and geographic conflict such as that of the almost two decades-long Lebanese Civil War, focus on its impact instead. What was it like to live in Beirut as an emotionally and culturally rich life is suddenly turned upside-down by bombings and gunfire as numerous militias are formed, numerous governments are dismantled, and the threat of being kidnapped or killed is beyond real? This is the experience that French-Lebanese director Chloé Mazlo‘s grandmother endured in the late 1970s and the backdrop for the stories she told about loving both country and family.
Mazlo and co-writer Yacine Badday craft a narrative from those pieces of the past to portray the flashbacked account of a Swiss woman (Alba Rohrwacher‘s Alice) in Beirut. Sous le ciel d’Alice [Skies of Lebanon] begins with its lead character on a boat to Cyprus many years after her arrival, writing a letter to her husband Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad) that details all the reasons she’s finally decided to go back home. She must first take us back to the beginning (via stop-motion animation), however, to show just how much she wanted to leave Switzerland and why returning was never on her mind. Upon receiving two job offers in the mail (one in Europe, the other in the Middle East), she enthusiastically destroys the former’s alternative by eating it.
Mazlo’s graphic design and animation background shines with a sort of elongated montage taking Alice from Beirut’s streets (guided by a woman dressed as the Lebanese flag’s cedar tree) to the diner where she meets Joseph and then through the years of them starting a family. The combination of styles lends a wonderful DIY effect with canvas paintings serving as the environments above which Alice and others are superimposed. Their house turns from an empty space to a fully furnished home with the humans skipping frames to provide the same hitch as the objects coming into frame. Even parenthood begins with a flourish, the camera positioned above Alice and Joseph’s bed as they attempt to reach out and grab a baby from the line of storks flying past.
It’s a good life too. Joseph’s brother (Hany Tamba‘s Georges), sister (Mariah Tannoury‘s Mimi), and their spouses/children welcome Alice into their family as young Mona (Isabelle Zighondi as their daughter) grows to college age with aspirations of a music career at the piano. Alice paints and shows her work in galleries while Joseph’s astrophysicist might be on his way to putting the first Lebanese man on the moon. So, just as things look like they couldn’t get better, they inevitably get worse. The factions between Maronite Catholics and Muslim Palestinians grow, a line is formed separating Beirut into East and West, and it seems as though the radio is constantly talking about the latest ceasefire that never lasts. The airports close and everyone worries what’s next.
The bombings put Joseph out of work and risk the others’ lives until the whole gang ends up under Alice’s roof. She doesn’t mind because this is exactly the family she wanted. There’s no regret at all about never going back to her parents and she even wonders aloud why nobody seems “brave enough” to stick with Lebanon and wait out the chaos. When Joseph eventually goes back to the office and “peacekeepers” invade their home to trash it in search of heavy artillery before demanding to be fed (it’s not stated, but my assumption is that these are Israeli soldiers considering what happens a few years later—events presented with equally effective small-scale humanism via Oualid Mouaness‘ 1982, a contextual companion piece), Alice fearlessly stands her ground.
Even so, love seems no match for war. Joseph retreats emotionally when no longer able to dream about space. Georges gets stuck in Paris as his eldest son Fady (John Chelhot) flirts with joining a militia. Mona thinks about leaving to follow her own heart like Alice did. Some members even disappear. What was so electric and seemingly unstoppable becomes fractured and frayed. Family that was willing to live on top of each other in a single living room now seeks to escape as fears that their country is soon to be destroyed for good seem plausible if not guaranteed. And Mazlo supplies this drama via the subtle cracks in demeanor and shifts in attitude. Tempers grow short and compromises become necessary just to remain on speaking terms.
The result is heartbreaking because the need to choose between Lebanon and family risks ripping everything apart. It gets so rough that present-day Alice crumples up her letter on that boat to start anew with lies exposed by memories contradicting her words because leaving—no matter how much the place has changed to look and feel nothing like it did before—isn’t easy. And despite what some of these characters say, it’s not about giving up either. It can’t be when keeping your family safe is the alternative. My grandfather left Lebanon before it was separated from Syria, unmarried and without children. To therefore add all those responsibilities on top of leaving it behind seems impossible. Alice created something in Beirut. She doesn’t want to see it die.
Rohrwacher is wonderful in that role, steadfast and determined regardless of whether Lebanon is her adopted home. Her Alice can’t bear everyone leaving and yet we look at the circumstances, destruction, and deaths to wonder how she can stay. And to watch hers and Joseph’s rapport deteriorate is to see the cost of war that we don’t often get to experience. Mouawad (whose playwright, of Incendies fame, is equal to the task where performance is concerned) provides the stoicism and defeat of a man unsure about his identity as both someone working to change the script insofar as the conversation surrounding Lebanon and a husband/father with people who love him regardless of where they may lay their heads. The end is therefore bittersweet whichever path they ultimately choose.
courtesy of Dekanalog