When a boy comes of age in a movie made by Francophones, he’s generally obliged to visit a brothel. Among the latest to fulfill this duty is Tarek–and in his case, the rite of passage defies convention. The adult sensuality he savors comes in the form of Nescafé, with milk. The prostitutes, though suited to his fancy, fascinate him less than the madam, a volcanic monologuist dressed in a lava flow of robes. The French language, though available to him, pops out in only a word or two, half-disguised amid a flow of Arabic. And the greatest excitement of his entry into this, the legendary house of Oum Walid? It’s the discovery, in the late seventies, that both Muslim and Christian johns frequent this brothel, leaving their assault rifles outside the door. Here, at last, Tarek finds hope. Here there’s only one Beirut, with no division into East and West.
Written and directed by Ziad Doueiri, based on his memories of growing up amid civil war, West Beirut seems destined to be called the Lebanese 400 Blows, which is unfortunate. The film is too good to be praised (and dismissed) by comparison. There are, of course, obvious points of contact between Doueiri’s first feature and Truffaut’s. Both are semi-autobiographical; both are episodic; both track the course of a young man (or boy) who is clever and dislikes school and finds that home life has grown increasingly tense and street life increasingly risky. I can even imagine Doueiri’s having taken The 400 Blows as a model for his film. (For evidence of that possibility, look no further than West Beirut‘s explicit strain of cinephilia.) And yet, for all that, Doueiri’s film speaks a different language. The things it has to say in that language–about tensions at home and risks on the street of a sort that were unknown to Truffaut–entitle West Beirut to a category of its own.
The film begins in 1975 with adolescent high spirits, and with moviemaking. Tarek (played by Rami Doueiri, the director’s brother) is a skinny question-mark of a kid, whose body curves up to a long shaggy head, then down a long nose to a smile that’s both goofy and obstinate. Mama’s boy, clown and provocateur, Tarek is the boy who disrupts the high school to get attention–but also, in his case, to express national pride. He attends Beirut’s lycée; and one day, during the flag-raising ceremony, he carries a bullhorn onto a balcony overlooking the courtyard and, to general cheers, drowns out the “Marseillaise” with a Lebanese anthem.
Below, photographing the scene with a Super-8 camera, is round-faced, square-shouldered Omar (Mohamad Chamas), Tarek’s best friend, who is a head shorter than our hero and likes to boss him around. From time to time, West Beirut shows you a bit of Omar’s footage, which looks appropriately casual–as does Doueiri’s, in a more polished way. Fond of handheld shots that walk you into the action and of tight framing that keeps the characters snug in their world, Doueiri joins himself through camera style to Omar and Tarek, evoking a moment of adolescence when cinema was a fresh discovery, friendship seemed eternal and war always happened to other people.
They were the Other, even if they were only yards away. That’s what we learn at the beginning of West Beirut, when Tarek, because of his defiance of the “Marseillaise,” becomes witness to the deaths of dozens of civilians. His teacher has just dismissed him from class; and while she addresses a tirade to his departing back, insisting that France gave Lebanon its civilization and culture and laws and peace, Tarek once again finds himself observing an interesting scene from a balcony. This time, the figures at his feet are not his cheering school chums. They’re gunmen in ski masks who creep along the street toward a bus carrying Palestinians. The gunmen open fire; and through the dreamlike logic of movies, Tarek’s prank from the first scene now explodes in the second into bloodshed.