It’s easy to be wary of star projects that aim to be hard-hitting treatments of countries in peril you know well, so hearing that Nadine Labaki and Saleh Bakri are starring in Costa Brava, Lebanon, about a family trying to cope with Lebanon’s collapse, might initially create some hesitation -- will their personas overwhelm the subject? The fear is unwarranted and maybe it’s time to accept that certain stars, especially these two, understand what’s involved. Mounia Akl’s intimate drama lets them both shine without ever removing us from the film’s emotional core, and while a few elements are underdeveloped, the evocation of family life is spot-on and the struggles they face have a believability that adds considerably to the movie’s affecting power.
Given the cascading series of tragedies that have befallen Lebanon in the past few years, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when this is set, pre or post explosion, but it matters little since the sense of crisis was already at an acute stage. Walid Badri (Bakri) and his wife Souraya (Labaki) left Beirut for a house in the countryside almost a decade earlier, burned out by the struggles of city living and a sense of defeat after years of unfruitful activism. They’ve raised their two daughters, Tala (Nadia Charbel), seventeen, and Reem (played by sisters Ceana and Geana Restom), nine, in an idyllic spot on a verdant hillside with distant views of the sea, far from the hubbub of modern life. It’s the kind of place where the days are spent tending the land or swimming in the pool, and the pantry is full of homemade oils, preserves and dried herbs.
Their peace is interrupted when a horrifically ugly statue of the president is suddenly erected on a spot just below their property, and they learn that the government has appropriated the adjoining land to use as landfill. The propaganda machine insists it will be an ecologically friendly waste center, but the Badris know too well that with an election coming up, the president will say anything to appear like he’s handling the country’s garbage crisis.
Just as they suspect, the rubbish bags start piling up on the edge of (and onto) their property, and tensions within the house begin to rise. Souraya was once a famous pop singer; she and Walid met at a protest march and they continued their activism together until it became apparent that the changes they believed in were never going to happen. Although she loves her home, Souraya misses the excitement of Beirut and the life she once had there, whereas for Walid, the city represents crushed illusions best pushed aside. For them both, the garbage dump is an assault on the fragile balance they’ve created in this isolated spot, which leads to Walid’s anger simmering over while Souraya’s unexpressed nostalgia for the excitement of her Beiruti days creates multiple points of conflict.
Costa Brava, Lebanon is at its best when focusing on this relationship, both because the dialogue, scripted by the director and her cowriter Clara Roquet, flows so naturally and the chemistry between Labaki and Bakri is palpable. The bossy younger daughter Reem is also a well-drawn character, constantly trying to stave off disaster by obsessively counting in the way children often do. The strikingly adult manner in which she expresses herself feels right for a child raised with few peers who sees herself as a magical lynchpin holding everything together. Less successfully drawn is Tala, whose awkward attempts to negotiate her burgeoning sense of womanhood feels underdeveloped, as if the script doesn’t quite know what to do with her.
It’s also problematic that we don’t know how these girls have been educated –- are they home-schooled? Do they really have no friends? Their feisty grandmother Zeina (Liliane Chacar Khoury) has more interest in connecting to the internet than they do, and can it really be the case that they’ve never seen their mother’s concert videos? While the cocoon the Badris created on their property is completely believable for a leftist middle-class couple with just about the means to survive on their own, it still requires at least some additional details to assuage such niggling questions.
These flaws are forgivable thanks in great part to the way Akl evokes a sense of encroaching disaster on top of the nation’s perilous instability, and the exasperation of one family trying at all costs to hold onto what they’ve built. Towards the end, Souraya tells her husband she no longer knows whether he loves or hates his country, though in truth she understands very well that the burnout he feels comes from loving Lebanon so very much.
Lebanon, France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Norway Qatar 2021, 107 mins.
Director Mounia Akl
Screenplay Mounia Akl, Clara Roquet
International sales Participant, Endeavor Content, mk2 films
Produced by Abbout Productions, in co-Production with Cinema Defacto, Lastor Media, Fox In The Snow Films, Snowglobe, Barentsfilm, Gaïjin, in association with mk2 films, Participant, Boo Pictures.
Producers Myriam Sassine, Georges Schoucair
Co-Producers Sophie Erbs, Sergi Moreno, Olivier Guerpillon, Ingrid Lill Høgtun, Katrin Pors, Tom Dercourt, Tono Folguera, Eva Jakobsen, Mikkel Jersin, Joakim Rang Strand
Executive Producers Jeff Skoll, Anikah McLaren, Fouad Mikati, Candice Abela, Mikati, Karam Abulhusn, Monique Dib, Lara El Khoury, Elie Tabet, Harriet Harper Jones
Cinematography Joe Saade
Editors Carlos Marques-Marcet, Cyril Aris
Music Nathan Larson
Main cast Nadine Labaki, Saleh Bakri, Nadia Charbel, Ceana Restom, Geana Restom, Yumna Marwan, Liliane Chacar Khoury, François Nour