MOVIE OF THE WEEK July 22, 2022: SKIES OF LEBANON

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Quirky and poignant, creative and heartfelt, Chloe Mazlo’s drama Skies of Lebanon is a singular achievement in inventive filmmaking. As she tells the story of Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) — a young Swiss woman who leaves home in the 1950s and makes her way to Beirut, where she falls in love, marries, and raises a family — Mazlo serves up a unique mix of tone and style that’s likely to both charm and move viewers.

The movie opens with Alice penning a letter to her husband, Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), as she boards a boat to leave Beirut in the 1970s. As she writes, the film flashes back to the choices that brought her to that time and place, starting with her decision to leave her family behind in Switzerland to become a nanny in Lebanon. Swiftly and effectively, Mazlo uses stop-motion animation to capture Alice’s repressive childhood, then returns to live action for the sweet scenes in which Alice meets and falls for astrophysicist Joseph. As they get married, make friends, and start a family, Mazlo employs symbolism to suggest the growing violence in the city and country Alice and Joseph call home.

Like Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Skies of Lebanon is based on real-life lived experiences of modern civil unrest: Mazlo built the story out of tales her grandmother told her. Also like Belfast, it’s ultimately the story of a woman — and family — pushed to the edge by conflict and uncertainty. Alice loves Beirut and the life she’s built there, but as violence threatens the people she loves, she’s not sure whether it’s braver to stay or go. That tension affects her relationship with Joseph, who dreams of outer space and has little patience for Earth-bound squabbles.

But instead of Branagh’s palette of black, white, and gray, Skies of Lebanon is all color and energy. The costumes and set design are eye-catching, and the solutions Mazlo uses to re-create long-ago places and times are equal parts clever and practical/economical. The performances are also effective, with Rohrwacher reminiscent of Andrea Riseborough in her pale, unwavering strength, and Mouawad an appealing leading man. This isn’t your typical wartime relationship tale, and the approach takes a little getting used to. But once you lean in, Mazlo’s memorable movie will definitely keep your attention. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Leslie Combemale What sets Skies of Lebanon apart from other family dramas is it utilizes stop-motion animation and a fantastical blend of hyper-realistic and theatrical backgrounds to aid in the storytelling. The film centers on a family transformed by civil war from their pre-war comforts and contentment to the trauma and anxiety brought on by the harsh realities of war. They are surrounded by death and loss, and struggle with uncertainty about their moment-to-moment future. The visual creativity will keep viewers engaged and connected to the lead character Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) as she goes through experiences that span the emotional spectrum from joyful and dreamlike to nightmarish and hopeless. At all times the story feels real and immediate. But, of course it does, rooted as it is in the personal family history of director and co-writer Chloé Mazlo, who makes a stunning directorial debut with Skies of Lebanon.

Pam Grady: French-Lebanese writer/director Chloé Mazio makes an impressive feature debut in a film that marries vivid stop-motion animation and live action. It begins as a whimsical romance between Alice (Alba Rohrwacher), a Swiss nurse who takes a job as a nanny in 1950s Beirut, and Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), a Lebanese astrophysicist she meets in a café. The couple reside in Joseph’s homeland as he works on a team building Lebanon’s first rocket while Alice transforms into an artist and the pair build a family. But as the situation in the Middle Eastern country deteriorates in the years leading up to the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, Alice and Joseph feel the seismic impact of that outside pressure. Is love enough in a world descending into violence and chaos? Inspired by Mazlo’s grandparents’ lives, Skies of Lebanon balances humor and pathos as it portrays the impact of politics on the personal. Offbeat characters and absurd situations combine to create an initially eccentric tale that gradually gives way to a heartfelt, evocative depiction of partners tossed about by the maelstrom of events beyond their control.

Nell Minow: Humphrey Bogart was wrong in Casablanca when his character said, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” The problems of little people are all that matters, and Skies of Lebanon shows us that people who just want to love and be loved and pursue dreams far from politics and war — science, art, music — cannot help being swept into cruel, destructive conflicts about hatred and power. Chloe Mazlo and co-screenwriter Yacine Badday are skillful in using formal artificiality to keep the focus on the love story, not the war, lending a touch of allegory but keeping the emotions very real.

Marilyn Ferdinand Most of us strive for happy lives that are filled with loving partners and family, satisfying work, and pleasant surroundings that meet both our physical and material needs. Many of us are successful in achieving these goals, but unimagined forces can bring the fulfilling lives we work so hard to achieve crashing down around us. It is this erosion of normal lives and social connections that French Lebanese director and co-screenwriter Chloé Mazlo explores in her tribute to her parents and their home country in Skies of Lebanon. Read full review.

Jennifer Merin Skies of Lebanon, the first feature from French-Lebanese filmmaker Chloe Mazlo, who co-scripted with Yacine Badday, is an unusual film that brilliantly mixes live action and animation to capture the tensions and intense drama of a family surrounded by war. Thanks to its genre-defying style, it is a lot of fun while it’s being quite serious in touching on themes that are currently relevant around the world, as well as right here, at home. The film is a must see. Read full review.

Susan Wloszczyna: Skies of Lebanon is the first feature directed and co-written by Chloe Mazlo, who based her script on tales told to her by her grandmother, who left chilly Switzerland in the 1950s and fell in love with a Lebanese man. The main couple is played by Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher as Alice, who decides to take a nanny job in sunny and vibrant Beirut and swiftly meets her future mate Joseph (Wajda Mouawad), an optimistic rocket scientist who is determined to get his country to join the space race. Mazlo, meanwhile, takes a page out of Wes Anderson’s playbook as she combines quirky animation with live-action early on. They eventually start a family and make a cozy home for themselves while sharing their lives with their relatives and friends. But, eventually, civil war breaks out in Lebanon and their life takes a turn for the worst. Seeing such destruction echoes the ongoing war in Ukraine, as outsiders try to create chaos that leads to bloody deaths in the streets. Mazlo ends her tale with Alice and Joseph reclaiming their torn relationships while the cinematography by Helene Louvart does a lot of emotional heavy lifting at the end of the story.

Loren King Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher, so memorable in 2018’s Daughter of Mine, delivers a layered, perceptive performance in “Skies of Lebanon” as Alice, a young woman whose life is torn apart, bit by bit, by the violence and strife in her adopted homeland. Director Chloe Mazlo balances humor, charm, romance and drama to portray the effects of the 1977 political upheaval and violence in Beirut on one extended family. Alice, an artist, fell in love with Beirut and her husband Joseph (Waidi Mouawad) when she moved there to escape an unpleasant home life in Switzerland. Even as the war encroaches on her children, in-laws and Joseph’s work as a rocket scientist, Alice refuses to leave. With the mysteries of the galaxies as a recurring metaphor, Skies of Lebanon creatively explores what it means to call a place home.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Skies of Lebanon is a touching historical drama about a Swiss French woman and her Lebanese husband whose family – and marriage – is torn apart during the Lebanese Civil War. Alba Rohrwacher is fabulous as Alice, who as a young woman takes a job nannying in 1950s Beirut only to find love with rocket scientist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad) at a local coffee shop. Inspired by the personal family history of writer-director Chloé Mazlo, the film explores issues of identity, exile, and the meaning of home. It’s at times heartbreaking – many of Alice and Joseph’s close friends and family, including their only daughter Mona (Isabelle Zighondi) make unthinkably difficult decisions as the violence escalates. A thought-provoking story set mostly in Alice and Joseph’s home, this is a memorable tribute to what the filmmaker’s grandmother endured.

Cate Marquis The touching, creative, French-language Skies of Lebanon blends the personal and political in telling the story of how a peaceful, prosperous Lebanon in the 1950s is transformed by war in the 1970s. It is a tale told through the life of Swiss-born immigrant Alice (Alba Rohrwacher), who as a young woman leaves a restrictive life with her parents in Switzerland to find a freer one in Beirut, where she falls in love with and marries Lebanese scientist Joseph (Waidi Mouawad). They have a happy, full life together until the war darkens their sunny skies. Mixing live action and animation, and using a variety of techniques from the stage and old movies, director Chloe Mazlo and co-writer Yacine Badday blend imaginative symbolic scenes, touches of romance and comedy, vignettes of family life, while depicting what happened in Lebanon but keeping war’s violence off-screen. Skies of Lebanon tells both stories well, giving us a film of charm and heartache, filled with magic in the manner of Amelie crossed with Life is Beautiful.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Skies of Lebanon

Director: Chloe Mazlo

Release Date: July 22, 2022 (US release)

Running Time: 92 minutes

Language: French and Lebanese with English Subtitles

Screenwriters: Chloe Mazlo with Yacine Badday

Distribution Company: Dekanalog

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).