By Lynn Venhaus
Director Chloé Mazlo’s incredible “Skies of Lebanon” explores an idyllic life beset by war, as well as the power of the human spirit to shine through in seemingly hopeless situations.
Based on Mazlo’s grandmother’s experiences, the film centers around Alice Kamar (Alba Rohrwacher), who boards a ship to Cyprus in 1977, looking heartbroken as she pens a letter to Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), her husband she’s leaving behind . As Alice reflects, we’re transported back to the 1950s in the Swiss Alps, where she grew up in a strict household. This flashback is visualized through claymation — a quirky, effectively jarring way to illustrate Alice’s day-to-day existence, a routine she’s eager to escape from.
Alice eventually receives a letter inviting her to work as an au pair in Beirut, and she jumps at the opportunity to leave her homeland. She sees a Beirut brimming with excitement and peaceful co-existence, as well as a woman dressed as a Lebanese cypress tree. Alice calmly pushes a stroller superimposed against lavish, painted backdrops. She soon falls in love with Joseph, a charming scientist she meets at a café. We see a shot of Alice with her heart turning from blue to bright red.
Alice and Joseph marry and start a family. Time speeds up. With the camera in one primary location, we watch their daughter, Mona (Isabelle Zighondi), grow up, and jovial celebrations in the Kamar household unfold, surrounded by family and friends. Alice cuts the roots of her past that were previously holding her back both literally and symbolically (one of the film’s most striking sequences sees Alice cutting off roots from her feet with giant scissors).
The world has other plans, however, as the Lebanese Civil War breaks out. “Skies of Lebanon” keeps the specifics of the conflict ambiguous, but never undermines the severity of the situation. Bombings, mass killings, and fear of the future grip Beirut, disrupting the tranquility that Alice and Joseph worked so hard to cultivate. Their romance is put to the test by forces beyond their control, and both must eventually choose between staying in the country and staying together.
“Skies of Lebanon” is, without a doubt, one of 2022’s most memorable, stylistically fascinating films thus far, supported by masterful performances, a beautiful score by Bachar Khalifé, and a storyline that pulls at the heartstrings from start to finish. Indeed, Mazlo has a clear directorial vision — with visuals that evolve from Wes Anderson-esque to something more grounded and tactile as the war rages on.
While viewers have likely seen similar stories of families tested by external conflicts beyond their control, Mazlo infuses “Skies of Lebanon” with a humanism and artistic daring that sets it apart, finding a bittersweet middle ground that carries the film through to the end.
From the aforementioned opening sequences that unfold with a surreal, dreamlike haze, condensing large stretches of time into distinct, powerful moments of connection, to those showing the war’s toll — a person dressed as a skeleton does an impressionistic “dance of death” with the woman dressed as the cyprus tree; government officials with horse masks play musical chairs to see who’s in control — “Skies of Lebanon” pulses with passionate feeling. There’s an undeniable rage brewing underneath the satirical flourishes, and while they won’t be to all viewers’ tastes, their absurdity underscores the family’s sense of humanity and resilience; the contrast between hatred and love painted clearly.
Rohrwacher gives an outstanding, heartrending performance as Alice, a woman struggling to reckon with her desire to stay in Lebanon and not give up on her dreams with a reality that renders her day-to-day existence fraught with danger. Mouawad, perfectly portraying a deep-thinking, soft-spoken family man, lends true pathos to Joseph’s similar tug-of-war between dreams and reality (he and his engineers could be the first team to send a Lebanese person to the moon).
The rest of the extended family, who end up having to live in Alice and Joseph’s cramped apartment, is given plenty of development with limited screen time. Zighondi conveys a youthful energy with growing rebelliousness as Mona, while Mariah Tannoury, Hany Tamba, Odette Makhlouf, Ziad Jallad, and others are equally strong — their characters facing their own challenges as the struggle rips apart the happiness once shared.
Yes, “Skies of Lebanon” is certainly a sad film, but an important one, as Mazlo continues to find instances of whimsy and levity in the quiet moments, emphasizing the relationships at the story’s core that continue to endure, if only in spirit. There are few films of this year, or any year, that have such a profound emotional impact, and “Skies of Lebanon” is an essential reminder of war’s toll. It’s also an ode to humankind’s resilience in the face of catastrophe.
“Skies of Lebanon” is a 2020 drama from France, with English subtitles. It began rolling out in New York and Los Angeles on July 22, but there are no dates yet in St. Louis. Last November, it screened at the St. Louis International Film Festival. It is directed by Chloe Mazlo and stars Alba Rohrwacher and Wajdi Mouawad. It runs 1 hour, 32 minutes and it not rated. Alex’s Grade: A+
Alex McPherson is an unabashed pop culture nerd who contributes movie reviews for Cultured Vultures and Pop Life STL. He is also a member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association.