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.
Tarek's response? Whatever fear he feels, he expresses as anger at his mother. She doesn't hurry to the school fast enough to pick him up. When the mother (Carmen Lebbos), driving him home, retorts that the city is in chaos, Tarek also converts the attack into a platform for pride. Nobody knows what's happening, his mother says; to which Tarek replies firmly, "I know." And by the next morning, a new emotion has taken hold: elation. Civil war means no more school!
Now Tarek can spend his days hanging out with Omar, smoking cigarettes and listening to American pop music, and making clandestine movies of Omar's beautiful aunt. He can run up a tab with the avuncular owner of the local bakery and sandwich shop (Mahmoud Mabsout); and he can flirt with a new neighbor, May (Rola Al Amin)--a dangerous flirtation, since this pretty refugee from the south is a Christian. Omar does not approve of her. He understands, even if Tarek does not, that the situation is serious, and it's better not to be seen with this nun, this Virgin Mary.
With that, civil war opens the first crack in Tarek's world, threatening to separate him from his friend--a rupture that's the adolescent version of the tension between Tarek's parents. His mother wants to leave Beirut at once, while his father (Joseph Bou Nassar), grave and principled and utterly ineffectual, insists on staying put. It's the politically responsible thing to do, he says, in a voice deep with experience. Besides, he can't figure out where to go.
Doueiri has made his living as a camera operator and camera assistant (working for Quentin Tarantino, among others); and now that he's tried directing, he turns out to have a well-developed manner of storytelling. He mingles those casual-seeming, handheld shots with bigger, more choreographed scenes (a street demonstration and its ensuing battle, for example) and with montage sequences of newsreel footage, so that the intimacy of West Beirut sometimes opens into a bigger world, and days in their isolation blend into years. I admired the unforced complexity of Doueiri's technique; but more than that, I admired the emotional complexity of his characters.
At the heart of West Beirut is a teenager who can imagine that the civil war, on the streets and at home, is somehow his doing--that his prank became a massacre, that his longed-for freedom is being paid for with mourning. Doueiri touches on these feelings lightly, but deeply. I suspect there's an entire generation in Lebanon that will recognize itself in Tarek. As for those of us who have not gone through such experiences: West Beirut reminds us that the young people who live through civil war are the Other, but they're also only a few yards away.
The Maxim Gorky is steaming down the Danube, laden with armed guards and contraband. The Gypsies are happily sipping diesel fuel but spitting out water with disgust. At his headquarters and gravel factory, the old crime boss watches Casablanca from his bed, obsessively replaying the last scene; in his stretch limousine, the new crime boss snorts cocaine from a hollowed-out crucifix and chants rap with his personal team of backup singers; while in a ramshackle house by the river, a would-be criminal is again failing so badly, he can't even keep his dead father properly iced. At a turn in the road, a pig roots on an abandoned car, systematically demolishing it; while dogs mate, geese honk, gerbils on a wheel provide air conditioning and the band plays nonstop.
As the dead father observes, swilling champagne from the bottle, "What a life!" This chaos, this carnival, this former Yugoslavia, is the vision of director Emir Kusturica, who apparently did not reach exhaustion with his great and mistreated epic Underground but merely aggravated himself into a still-more-frenzied state of cinema.
His new film, Black Cat, White Cat (co-written with Gordan Mihic), has suffered its own problems. It was supposed to be released in the United States last spring but was held back, due to a little bombing campaign. Maybe the citizens of our Republic will be no more willing to watch the film now, in autumn. But what the hell! What a life! Pay your money, I say, and take the ride.
No more subtle than a NATO air raid, Black Cat, White Cat features a large cast with disorderly teeth and a tendency to dance at the least provocation. What are they dancing about? Marriages, among other things--though in Kusturica's mad, fallen world, which makes the chaos of West Beirut look like doubles tennis, the brides and grooms are mismatched and have to sort themselves out on their own. Young Zare (Florijan Ajdini), son of the incompetent would-be criminal, loves Ida (Branka Katic), the gun-toting ward of a beer-hall proprietor, and has consummated his innocent passion with her amid the sunflowers. But Dadan (Srdan Todorovic), the new criminal boss, has other plans, and insists that Zare marry the Gypsy princess Afrodita (Salija Ibraimova), who would sooner swallow rat poison, or even water.
Did you follow that? No matter. The band plays. Love conquers all. Everything has already fallen apart, so who cares, anyway? See Black Cat, White Cat; and then, if you're in New York City, go to the New York Film Festival, which on October 3 will show the original, full-length television version of Underground as a special presentation. That one will last you approximately five hours and twelve minutes, not including toilet breaks--so get your tickets now, and pack a lunch.