EIFF 2021

Skies of Lebanon review – quirky portrait of wartime connection

Chloé Mazlo’s debut feature is a visually unique but sometimes too outlandish melodrama set during the Lebanese Civil War

Here is an abstract film shrouded with a visual menagerie of eccentric imagery that is certain to either divide or engross viewers right from the start. You'll never be quite sure what direction Skies of Lebanon is headed – so much so, in fact, that it’s sometimes hard to convince yourself that the film has any idea either.

At first an original tale of self-searching, then a war-torn portrait of connection and familial melodrama set in the mid-fifties, French-Lebanese filmmaker Chloé Mazlo’s debut feature is an embellished story centred on Alice (the ever-brilliant Alba Rohrwacher). Arriving on the sunny shores of Beirut, Lebanon, with one suitcase and a sense of relief having left her overbearing family in the Swiss mountains, she enters a whirlwind romance with offbeat astrophysicist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad).

While his big ambition lies in sending the first Lebanese rocket into space, Alice is content with simply nestling into their new life together. Skies of Lebanon’s first act is full of interesting visuals that showcase an alternative ways of storytelling. Case in point: their honeymoon romance, shot in  timelapse, which sees them marry, move into a new home, and pluck a baby from a stalk that flies over their bed.

Their paradise is interrupted as the Lebanese Civil War erupts, dividing East and West Beirut. The couple and their daughter, Mona (Isabelle Zighondi), take shelter, pushing the piano and sofas to the walls so that the room becomes an open floor – both literally and figuratively. It’s not long before extended family, friends and neighbours arrive at their doorstep, making themselves at home for a new chapter encased within these four walls.

With a background in graphic design, Mazlo’s visual eye is both unconventional and exceptionally nuanced. One stylistic motif sees Alice’s parents appear as animated puppet-like figures. She slams down the phone after an aggravating call with them and finds a root-like cable secured to her foot. She cuts herself free with kitchen scissors and although the visual metaphor of being rooted is nice, it's one of many unusual visual choices that renders Skies of Lebanon memorable but somewhat outlandish.

Mazlo’s visual treatment is complemented by the likes of set designer Charlotte Martin-Favier, who decorates Alice and Joseph’s home like a dollhouse, each intricate item encased with sentimental value. Elsewhere, costume designer Ludivine Maillard’s use of pastel and frills soften Alice’s worries and reflect her pervasive optimism. It is a film whose eccentric and delicate visual touches are ambitious, but whose confidence with theatrics and sense of whimsy always lures you back in.

Alongside co-writer Yacine Badday, Mazlo paints a portrait of war that feels like a memory being lived in front of your eyes. When the household squeezes into a stairwell, sheltering as the reverb of explosions ricochet, you can already imagine their fearful jolts and hushed yelps as the subjects of stories for years to come.

The quaint film finds its stride in the latter half where we observe Rohrwacher through tighter shots rather than the establishing wides that dominate earlier scenes. The actor and her enigmatic quality, using silence as a moment to speak with her face, is at the heart of each scene that she appears. By the end, Skies of Lebanon is as much a showcase of Rohrwacher’s lead talent as it is a visually challenging debut for Mazlo.

Skies of Lebanon was screened as part of the Edinburgh Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be set.

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