January 27, 2011
When we visited Lebanon toward the end of the Clinton administration, the country was still occupied by the Syrian army. The occupation was a nuisance, because we frequently came across checkpoints where the cousin who was driving us around had to explain himself — or ourselves — to these interlopers. To bog things down a little more, the Lebanese army had its own checkpoints. Besides being an obstruction, the presence of the Syrians served as a constant reminder of the tense atmosphere that has too often prevailed in the country.
My maternal grandparents were born in Lebanon, and our principal reason for going there was to visit members of my grandmother’s family. Thanks to my cousin’s generosity with his time, we also saw a good deal of the antiquity and natural beauty Lebanon has to offer. Coming from a country that hadn’t had a war on its soil in well over a century, we couldn’t help being struck by the contrast between the competing armies with their automatic weapons and the Lebanese people going about their everyday lives.
That came to mind when we watched “Caramel,” a film made in Beirut, co-written and directed by Nadine Labaki, who also plays the central character, Layale. The story is about six women, three of whom work in a beauty salon, which is the axis around which the action revolves. The title, incidentally, refers to a sweet concoction used in the salon for hair removal; it actually figures in the plot in two instances.
The characters in the story are Layale, who is in a self-destructive relationship with a married man; Nisrine (Yasmine al Masri), who is about to be married to a man who doesn’t know of her previous sexual experiences; Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), who is attracted to other women – including Siham (Fateh Safa), a stunning customer at the salon; Jamale (Giselle Aouad), a frequent client at the salon, an aspiring actress who is having trouble coping with age; and Rose (Sihame Haddad), an elderly seamstress who cares for an unbalanced older sister, Lili, (Aziza Semaan), and is conflicted when she gets what apparently is her only chance at romance.
Labake — whose eyes, by the way, are hypnotic — tells the stories of these women with a loving, delicate, sometimes even dreamy touch. The blend of drama and comedy is just right. The performances, without exception, are credible and affecting. All of the characters, including the distracted Lili, are endearing and sympathetic.
The choice of settings adds to the quality of this film, because Labake keeps the camera’s eye on the story, and doesn’t go exploring the city for its attractive waterfront or its war-scarred ruins, or its slums. In fact, there are no allusions to the recent history of Beirut; this story is about the interior lives of these women.
An interesting cultural aspect of this story is that Nisrine is the only Muslim in the circle of friends; the other women are Christians. Nisrine’s family is very traditional — and, presumably, so is her fiancée, which is why — with the support and encouragement of her friends, she takes a drastic step to deceive her groom about her virginity.
The dialog in this film is in Arabic, and we watched it with English subtitles. It’s fun to listen to the actual dialog, because — as we noted when we visited there — the Lebanese mix French and English into their Arabic. This movie was well received when it appeared in 2007, and the attention was well deserved.