Previously known as an animator, Chloé Mazlo puts those skills to good use in her live action feature debut, a visually inventive film that can best be described as “mixed media.”
Skies of Lebanon (or, in its original French, Sous le Ciel d’Alice, literally Under Alice’s Sky) is the story of Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) and Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), she a young woman who flees unpleasant family life in Switzerland for a job as a nanny in Beirut during its golden age, he a Lebanese astrophysicist who sweeps her off her feet. The two marry and have a child, Alice quitting nannying to create art while Joseph works on a rocket aiming to land the first Lebanese person on the moon. They live a joyful middle class existence in one of the world’s great cities, but their world is rocked when the 1975 Lebanese Civil War breaks out, forcing Joseph’s entire extended family into their home and chipping away at everything they held dear about the nation they called home.
There is a beautiful surreality to the film’s early sequences. Alice’s Swiss home is shown entirely in stop motion animation, gloriously crude enough to seem otherworldly. Her first impressions of Beirut and her budding romance with Joseph have the striking color palette of a Wes Anderson movie as numerous locations around the city are recreated using purposefully noticeable green screen, giving the scenes the heightened reality of live theater. Their daughter Mona is born and raised to teenagehood (when she is then played by Isabelle Zighondi) in the span of a few-minute montage that features stop motion animation created using actors, not clay models. There is a recurring motif starring a woman in a dress made to resemble the cedar tree on the Lebanese flag. The score (used skillfully, though surprisingly sparingly) reflects Beirut’s status as “the Paris of the Middle East” by blending the aesthetic of Middle Eastern music with the strings and accordion of a French café. As war breaks out, Mazlo maintains her bright 1970s color palette but the surreality wanes and the music shifts to more somber piano pieces as life becomes far too difficult to concentrate on life’s joys and eccentricities.
I could describe the plot in more detail, but it’s not really necessary: this is a film not about story, but about emotion, specifically the emotional toll that the uncertainty and anxiety of war takes on those who live through it. Alice is so enamored with her adopted homeland, and so vehemently against returning to her original home, that she tries to avoid looking at the reality until it’s staring her in the face. Joseph is a patriot working for the great name of a nation that no longer resembles the one he’s dedicated his life to. They both fear for the safety of their daughter and their family, yet both hold out hope that somehow, despite all indications to the contrary, that life can return to normal. Neither one knows what to do until, finally, they do.
There have been a lot of war stories told in movies. I’ve never seen one quite like Skies of Lebanon. The blend of joy and sadness and hopefulness and anxiety reminds us that real life tries its damnedest to exist even in the face of violence and bloodshed, while Mazlo’s imaginative visuals underline these emotions in a way that a more literal film could never hope to. If you come to a festival like SLIFF to see films that move you, delight your eyes, and challenge your perceptions, put this one high on your list. | Jason Green
Skies of Lebanon will have two screenings at the Tivoli Theatre (6350 Delmar Blvd.), one on Friday, November 5th at 5:00pm and one on Thursday, November 18th at 8:00pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival. The film is not available for virtual screening. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF 2021 website.