Monday 1 August 2022

Movie Review: Heaven Without People (2017)

A Lebanese family drama and comedy, Heaven Without People (original title Ghada El Eid, meaning Festive Lunch) seeks awkward fissures below the surface of domesticity.

In Beirut, a Christian family gathers for lunch to celebrate Easter at the home of Josephine and Sarkis. Their adult children include opinionated daughter Rita and her philosophical husband Rabih, son Serge and his new girlfriend Leila, and another daughter Christine, who is married to Elias and mother to two young children with a third on the way. Josephine's sister Noha is also in attendance, along with her teenaged son Sami. Zoufan, from Sri Lanka, is the live-in housekeeper.

The conversation around the dinner table is initially a mix of pleasantries, politics, mild arguments, and plenty of good natured ribbing and humour. But then Josephine makes a shocking discovery, followed by Leila revealing some inconvenient truths, while tensions erupt between Sami and his mom Christine. What was supposed to be a joyous gathering disintegrates into chaos.

Featuring an ensemble cast of mostly amateur performers and filmed in the single apartment location (and predominantly around the dinner table), Heaven Without People is written and directed by Lucien Bourjeily. The hand-held camera work, casual perspectives, and long, uninterrupted takes establish an intimate, fly-on-the-wall tone. The less essential dialogue appears improvised, resulting in natural conversation exchanges typical of family gatherings over celebratory meals.

The relationships around the table are allowed to surface through interactions rather than intentional introductions, resulting in a some disorientation. It takes a while for Bourjeily to start injecting pointed commentary, but gradually, edges and wedges are revealed. Topics of religion and political factions invade the table, the imperatives of maintaining civility and respect for the elders start to fray, and before long financial pressures, factionalism, corruption, immigration, and the status of women cause a full blown detonation. The final act is an impressive - and loud - contrast to the happy-faced opening.

The limited budget and modest production values are noticeable through some barely-audible whispered dialogue in a few scenes, and when tempers flare, over-the-top theatricality is allowed to dominate. But in the best moments, Bourjeily excels in capturing internally-consistent characters and conversational rhythms, where reactions are often as important as verbal cues, and the person saying the least may be communicating loudest. Heaven Without People works as a metaphor for the Lebanese finding reasons to tear their country apart, and also as a candid exposition of what makes every family a family.

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