Thursday, September 27, 2007

Caramel-The Lebanese Movie


By Joseph El-Khoury


I went reluctantly to watch Caramel, driven by a sense of patriotism and determined to support the Lebanese film industry with my 9000LL. I failed to entice my friends and took my mother along instead partly thinking she might enjoy its twist of feminism and family friendly light entertainment.

On many levels I was positively surprised. Nadine Labaki is gorgeous and although omnipresent throughout the movie I didn’t tire of her sensuality or her strong screen presence. With her big brown eyes she reminded me of Penelope Cruz in the Spanish movie Volver, In fact the similarities with the work of Almodovar were striking. This was a movie awash with Mediterranean colours and sounds. A random story about women caught in tragic situations and surrounded by men who are mostly peripheral and two-dimensional. Other familiar elements were: Sex, the Catholic Church and the State. The latter is represented through our friendly but naïve police officer played by Adel Karam and his punishing colleagues. What were lacking were the socio-economical dimension and the political context. Time and place were kept possibly deliberately vague. The film is dedicated to Beirut but one angle of a street in Gemmayze is not representative of this intricate and complex city. Also humour which is intrinsic to the feature with Almodovar, often fails to shine through in Labaki’s movie. The only time you heard frank laughing in the audience was during the police custody scene which is as incredibly funny as it is realistic. Also while it is understandable that subtlety is required to reach the broadest audience possible in a society where sexual taboos still prevail, it somehow appears misplaced or miscalculated. I was hoping for the first Lesbian kiss in the history of Lebanese cinema, I was disappointed as it all ended with an unremarkable haircut already sported in real life by Nathalie Portman who is hardly a lesbian icon. There is less subtlety, though, in the roles given to foreigners. While the Egyptian appears as a morally corrupt receptionist the Elderly French gentleman is distinguished and caring (not to mention he inexplicably doesn’t appear to speak a word of Arabic). The Srilankan community make a cameo appearance on public transport only to utter the now characteristic ‘hello madam’ in a scene that adds nothing to the story. This is also the case of the religious procession, which ends up inside the hairdressing salon for no apparent reason. If this was meant to be surrealist it looked redundant and clumsy. At one point, as I stared again into another prolonged close-up of Labaki’s face, and the Lebanese public being what it is, I realised there was more happening in the audience than on screen with various ring tones going off and endless chit-chat. As in any good romantic comedy it all ended on a positive note in a supposedly traditional wedding with all the protagonists present, Muslims and Christians (surprisingly identified as such in contrast to many Lebanese movies) dancing around a feast in a picturesque setting..
For all my criticism I did generally enjoy it and felt that it could sit well with many art house European movies. Nadine Labaki deserves praise for attempting the challenge of creating a serious yet entertaining Lebanese movie and succeeding to a certain extent where others failed. My mother for her part did not like it. She was offended by the absurd religious procession but remained oblivious to the Lesbians.

8 comments:

Nadine Sibai said...

I agree with Joseph that Caramel was a copy of Almodovar's movies: the setting, the style, and perhaps the music (tango). However, there is nothing wrong with being inspired by Almodovar's Spanish women and creating a Lebanese version of it. While Almodovar's women are hysterical reflecting the prostitute women, the mother,the dautgher,etc. Lebanese women are seen suffering other social taboos.
It is true that the movie wasn't representative of Beirut or all the Christians of Beirut, but who said that every movie should be documentative of the present society? In fact, there are elemnts of reality. Though the setting is fictional but women's stories are real. The movie does not tackle all of Lebanon's factions and streets, but it surely tackles a small community in Beirut and if the director chooses to highlight a certain segment of Lebnanon then let it be.
In addition, perhaps the movie wasn't funny for the Lebanese audience in Lebanon, however, the Lebanese audience in London were continously laughing.
Initially, I was disappointed by Caramel's shallowness and failure of parallelism and twist. However, as a first movie attempt, I think it was superb, light, and a success. And I was impressed that director showed the Muslim veil and the cross co-existing naturally and by the fact that (though over done) she pinpointed the existence of Christians in the Middle East and Lebanon (something that the Middle Eastern cinema industry rarely attempts to shed light on).

Blob said...

Reading "Joseph's" review (assuming the writer is really a Joseph) I wondered if we watched the same movie.
Let's see where Joseph really missed the point:

"With her big brown eyes she reminded me of Penelope Cruz in the Spanish movie Volver"
- Even a blind can see Nadine Labaki's eyes are green not brown. Not a big issue, but this announces a flawed and short-sighted comment. Next...

- "The only time you heard frank laughing in the audience was during the police custody scene"
I beg to differ. The funny scenes abound: "Julie Pompidou" "Haute Couture", Adel's invasion of the beauty parlor, the hotel receptionist inquiring about the family connection and the Canada connection, Rosette Baddour, Lilli praying the rosary... That got us all laughing.

"I was hoping for the first Lesbian kiss in the history of Lebanese cinema, I was disappointed as it all ended with an unremarkable haircut already sported in real life by Nathalie Portman who is hardly a lesbian icon."
-Habibi Joseph, even a heterosexual kiss is still a big deal on Lebanese screens. Did you really expect Nadine to stage a Lesbian kiss and get all those bigots around started lashing out at the immoral view of this "christian" director? Or is it a satisfaction of your macho wet dreams?
Plus the Portman haircut, is a subtext indicating that the beautiful brunettes finally succumbs to Rima's wishes, and hence advances.

"While the Egyptian appears as a morally corrupt receptionist the Elderly French gentleman is distinguished and caring (not to mention he inexplicably doesn’t appear to speak a word of Arabic)."
- Sorry to break the news, but cheap motels especially in Hamra are run either by Syrians or by Egyptians. As for the American gentleman, I guess his role dictates a nice character. Or did you wanted delicate and sentimental Rose to fall in love with some slobbery Arab?? Plus Charles utters the world "Helwin". There goes for your Arabic word. Then again , I have seen very few foreigners in Lebanon making the effort to speak "Arabic" (in other word Lebanese dialect). It is the Lebanese who make the effort of speaking the foreigners' language.

- "The Srilankan community make a cameo appearance on public transport only to utter the now characteristic ‘hello madam’ in a scene that adds nothing to the story."
It obviously does not add anything to the story, but Sri Lankans are a part of our society and they need to be depicted as they are.

"This is also the case of the religious procession, which ends up inside the hairdressing salon for no apparent reason."
- Another hint you my not be a "Joseph el Khoury" because anyone with the surname Khoury would know that during the month of May, the Marial month (that of the Virgin Mary), processions with the statue of Mary roam the streets, homes and businesses for prayer and blessing.
It looked nice, and for foreign audiences, it added an unexpected touch of fervent catholicism in a country perceived as Islamic.

"She was offended by the absurd religious procession but remained oblivious to the Lesbians."
- I guess your mother is a bigot, or a non-christian.

"Arab Democracy"
- Another of your oxymorons: Arab and Democracy cannot fit in one sentence!

Arab Democracy said...

My dear Blob.

Always good to hear from a fellow Lebanese.

Indeed I am called Joseph El-Khoury and it might come as a shock to you in the narrow mindedness of your Lebano-centric (or should I say Christian Lebano-centric) view of the world but individuals bearing this name come in different shapes and forms. I was actually brought up a Christian in the midst of the Maronite heartland but still managed to develop a critical mind. I am not going to go again into the aspects of the movie that I disliked but I feel sorry for those who view any type of criticism as an act of treason to this great country that is not impressing anyone but its own deluded citizen. The Lebanese cinema is substandard even compared to the film industry in neighbouring countries. And it is this self-deluded attitude that is preventing progress beyond the mediocre and copycat productions in recent years, But hey I am glad you liked it. We can agree to disagree and who knows this might even herald the start of a true Arab democracy.

Kind Regards

Joseph El-Khoury

PS: Last time I checked my mother was still a Christian. But it seems she is more tolerant of Lesbians than your mother.

BLOB said...

Actually it is not my lebano-centrism that is drawing us backward (if you meant it as an accusation then I am proud), but it is Arabist traitors like you who are actually doing so.
The reason the Lebanese cinema is substandard against the "dazzling" Syrian and Egyptian productions is that because of Arabism, and their failed causes that we were busy cleaning their shit, and playing scapegoats to their ideals, while they were busy making those kitsch movies and soap operas you are that fund of.
Keep dreaming of your so-called Arab democracy. But hear this: throughout its history, the more it distanced itself from the so-called Arab identity, Lebanon improved, when it got stuck with the Arabs, from Syria, to Egypt to the Palestinians, to the Saudi, it sunk more and more in the dung.
Focus on improvinh our Lebanese democracy, and stop your pathetic pan-arabist dreams. Charity begins at home you know!

SultryAndSweet said...

hey everybody. i really liked the movie and i like the way it showed dat nisrine as a muslim is friends with layal who is a christian because that is the way it is in real life. though i am not lebanese, i have friends who are and they are also friends with eachother even though some of them are muslims and some are christians. as a people, you should unite as lebanese, not allow matters such as religion to get in the way. i am not sure who mentioned that christianity in lebanon is unknown but you are wrong, lebanon is recognized very much for its large christian population while at the same time for its muslim population. but anyways i loved caramel and i thought it was great, and its not always nice to look at small things in movies such as religious differences and instead focus on the bigger picture, which is the wonderful friendship and trust shared by these women

SultryAndSweet said...

o and by the way, khoury isnt a lastname reserved for chrisitians, there are very many muslims who have this last name. i am muslim and my cousin who is muslim and coincidentialy lebanese has this last name: "mohammed khoury" is his name. i just liked to point that out and also that joseph is more likely to be chrisitian even though muslims have that name 2 though they prefer to use the arabic version yusuf. i still dont see to understand why christians like to use the english version of names such as joseph. arent they arab?

Arab Democracy said...

Dear SultryandSweet(excellent nickname)

Thank you for your comment.The original post was not about religion or politics, it was a simple critical review of a decent movie. Whether I am Christian or not is irrelevant. As for Joseph(Which is the exact spelling of my name and not an anglicized version) vs Youssef, these days names are used across cultures and religions, I am not sure why Arabs should stick to only a few to fit a stereotype.

Joseph

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