Review: ‘In the Battlefields’

The former conflict in Lebanon has served as a backdrop for a variety of movies, but none so distantly as "In the Battlefields," a modest but engaging family drama set in 1983 Beirut. For its 12-year-old protag, the battlefields of the title are more within her own family and relatives, with the real war just a series of distant explosions.

The former conflict in Lebanon has served as a backdrop for a variety of movies, but none so distantly as “In the Battlefields,” a modest but engaging family drama set in 1983 Beirut. For its 12-year-old protag, the battlefields of the title are more within her own family and relatives, with the real war just a series of distant explosions as the city is disemboweled. First feature by Beirut-born filmmaker Danielle Arbid looks set for limited arthouse biz, followed by wider small-screen exposure, especially in Europe.

Arbid, who spent the first 15 years of her life (1975-90) in Lebanon before moving to Paris to study journalism, claims the pic is not autobiographical, but she clearly knows whereof she speaks. And though the movie is about feelings rather than biography, there are elements which clearly overlap with Arbid’s life. Her father was also a constantly indebted gambler, her own aunt plays the girl’s aunt, and young thesp Marianne Feghali is a dead ringer for Arbid herself.

Lina (Feghali) is the only child of a warring couple, Fouad (Aouni Kawass) and Therese (Carmen Lebbos), whose marriage is being torn apart by the husband’s chronic gambling. Lina’s only friend is the maid, Siham (Rawia Elchab), of her aunt, Yvonne (Laudi Arbid-Nasr), both of whom live in an apartment upstairs.

The matriarchal Yvonne, who seems to have taken lessons at the Cruella DeVille school of acting, rules the extended family with a rod of iron, spitting out insults at mealtimes and treating Siham with haughty disdain. The comfortably-off Christian-Arab family exists in a kind of time warp, with Yvonne whiling away her days playing cards with her female cronies and refusing to lend the feckless Fouad any more money to pay off his debts.

Lina has a sisterly affection for Siham, and hangs out with her as much as possible, even accompanying the independent-minded maid on amorous outings with her b.f. When Siham secretly tells Lina she plans to run away in a few days’ time, the young girl makes a move that creates an unbridgeable chasm between them.

The basic story could effectively be set anytime, anyplace, as nothing is made of the family’s religious orientation and the only noticeable effect of the civil war is regular trips to the basement whenever bombing is heard. There’s no sense of tension on the streets and no news broadcasts are ever heard: Pic’s deliberate point is that life goes on beyond the headlines, and, for a youngster like Lina (unlike, say, those in the more engaged movie “West Beyrouth”), the war hardly exists.

What’s left is a deft, well-acted but slim coming-of-ager, against a background of dysfunctional family life. As Fouad’s gambling habit drives him to more and more desperate measures, Therese, already pregnant again, decides she’s had enough.

Pretty but not cute, Feghali is quite a find as the naive yet stubborn Lina; but for sheer screen presence Arbid-Nasr (a late replacement for a professional thesp) acts everyone else into a cocked hat as the terrifying aunt. Elchab is fine enough as the declasse maid, who really has nothing in common with the family as a whole.

Lensing is pro without having any special style, apart from arty still-life cityscapes inserted into the film as points of repose.

In the Battlefields

Directors Fortnight / France-Berlgium-Lebanon

Production

A Quo Vadis Cinema release (in France) and presentation of a Quo Vadis (France)/Versus Prod. (Belgium)/Taxi Films (Lebanon) production, in association with Selavy, RTBF. (International sales: Bavaria Film Intl., Munich.) Producer, Jerome Vidal. Co-producers, Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Sabine Sidawi-Hamdan, Elie Khalife. Directed, written by Danielle Arbid.

Crew

Camera (color), Helene Louvart; editor, Nelly Quetier; music, various; art director, Andre Fonsny ; sound (Dolby SRD), Faouzi Thabet, Marc Bastien, Philippe Baudhuin; assistant director, Sylvie Peyre. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 16, 2004. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Marianne Feghali, Rawia Elchab, Laudi Arbid-Nasr, Carmen Lebbos, Aouni Kawass, Roger Assaf. (Arabic dialogue)
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