Wednesday 10 August 2022

Movie Review: West Beirut (1998)

A coming-of-age drama with a wicked sense of humour, West Beirut is a slice-of-life story about growing up in the shadow of war.

The setting is Beirut, Lebanon, at the outset of the Civil War in 1975. Violence erupts, militias take over the streets, and the city is split into East and West sectors. Mischievous high school student Tarek (Rami Doueiri) finds himself in mainly Muslim West Beirut, cut off from his school in Christian East Beirut. Tarek and his friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas) spend their days roaming the streets looking for misadventure. Tarek is also smitten by his new neighbour May (Rola Al-Amin), a Christian refugee.

Security and economic conditions worsen and the strain reflects on Tarek's parents Riad and Hala. Riad is an intellectual and loses his job, but argues against leaving the country, believing the war has to end soon. Hala is a pragmatic lawyer and worries about a grim future. Meanwhile Tarek, Omar, and May are busy trying to find a store to develop their homemade Super 8 film. After another round of street violence, Tarek stumbles upon one of war-torn Beirut's secret locations: a brothel in no-man's land. 

Writer and director Ziad Doueiri draws on his personal experiences during the war, and West Beirut shines with autobiographical warmth. The dichotomy of discovering thrilling streetwise freedom within an eruption of violence and a country's dissolution is captured in a loose narrative structure, the episodes mixing surreal experiences with the pain of anarchy. Context and politics are pushed well into the background: this is a youth's perspective of a reality in flux and stocked with as much opportunity as danger.

The ramshackle aesthetics of a city divided provide a strong visual identity, the streets hosting bursts of violence and snippets of impish humour. Small details enhance the absurdities of war: in different contexts, a small cross and a brassiere contribute to risks of life and death. Some of the strongest dramatic moments occur at Tarek's home, as he becomes an unwilling witness to his parents Riad and Hala losing the battle to provide a viable nurturing environment. A gnawing sense of helplessness envelopes the family as the basic necessities of life - security, work, money - erode, with Riad and Hala not aligning on next steps.

The performances by a group of amateur actors perfectly fit the natural mood. Rami Doueiri (the director's younger brother) is a gangly teenager, his lackadaisical attitude helping him navigate increasing tensions. Mohamad Chamas brings an intensity to Omar, and occupies a better - and more bitter - understanding of what is at stake. Rola Al-Amin represents the ethereal attractiveness of what might become Tarek's first crush. 

The drama suffers from a few weaknesses. The odyssey to develop the Super 8 film goes on longer than necessary, then the brothel side-quest is similarly over-extended. But West Beirut is resilient, and emerges as heartfelt portrait of early adulthood under fire.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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