'Once Again'

An intriguingly evocative if occasionally disjointed debut by promising helmer Joud Said.

The cyclical nature of violence in the Middle East underscores “Once Again,” an intriguingly evocative if occasionally disjointed debut by promising helmer Joud Said. Working with themes of machismo, memory and reconciliation, Said uses a love story between a shut-down Syrian army brat and a bitter Lebanese expat to flesh out the psychological damage as well as the possibilities for understanding that lie at the core of the fractious conflict. Editing needs tightening, and some of the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, but this attractively shot pic should find a place in fests looking to explore the region.

“Once Again” took home the Arab film prize at the 2009 Damascus Film Festival; it’s unclear why it’s only playing the international circuit now, though presumably producer Mohammad Al Ahmad (also director of the Damascus fest) was waiting for the right offshore launching pad. Given the general dearth of Syrian pics on the global scene, and the strengths of “Once Again,” it’s likely Said’s drama will get wider exposure than most.

Editing during the opening minutes can be confusing, especially when uniforms aren’t entirely clear, but the Lebanese-Syrian conflict itself can be bewildering to outsiders. In 1980, a Syrian captain (Jonny Komovitch) leading forces in Lebanon loses his wife to a sniper’s bullet. Their young son, Majd, is raised in army settings, largely cared for by the captain’s lieutenant Abu Said (noted helmer Abdulatif Abdulhamid).

The plot develops via constantly shuttling flashbacks: The boy himself is wounded and spends four years in a coma. Flash forward to 2006 (the eve of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon), and Majd (star Qays Cheikh Najib) is the IT manager at a Damascus bank, where Joyce (Pierrette Katrib) has just been transferred as director. She’s from Lebanon and ill at ease in Syria, partly due to the fact that she’s the daughter of a soldier killed in the decades-long conflict.

Despite a relationship with fellow employee Kinda (Kinda Allouch), Majd is drawn to the icy Joyce, hacking into her computer and following her emails and Skype calls when he’s not playing ultra-violent video games. Knowing how to turn on the charm despite an emotional hardness, he wins her over, until the betrayed Kinda tells Joyce about Majd’s creepy surveillance. However, Majd really has fallen for his boss, and when the Israelis enter Lebanon, he’s Joyce’s one hope of getting back to her country to reunite with the young daughter she left behind.

The shifts in time reinforce the sense, clear in the title, that the patterns of the past are repeated in the present, though the reconciliation between Majd and Joyce offers hope that Syria and Lebanon can be reconciled — via common cause against Israel. The structure is ambitious and doesn’t always work, sporadically providing background details while hampering continuous involvement with the characters. However, some edits play beautifully, such as when Abu Said bathes the young Majd’s comatose body, which then elegantly transitions into the same action being performed on his teenage limbs.

Permeating it all is a disturbing machismo, tied to the male characters’ restricted emotions; it’s unclear whether Said is claiming this testosterone-heavy environment is the byproduct of years of military culture or its cause, but it certainly weighs on the film’s protags. Majd’s sociopathic nature is directly linked to this tough-guy atmosphere, making for a powerful critique of both Syrian masculinity and the Syrian-Lebanese conflict, which itself is a brave statement for any up-and-coming helmer.

Perfs are uniformly strong, as are handsome visuals by young d.p. Joude Gorani. Colors range from sun-bleached olives and pale browns to more darkly saturated tones, as weighty as the atmosphere.

Once Again

Syria

Production

A Syrian Art Prod. Intl., National Film Organization production. Produced by Mohammad Al Ahmad. Directed, written by Joud Said.

Crew

Camera (color), Joude Gorani; editors, Ali Leilane, Simon El Habre; music, Nadeem Meshlawi; production designer, Dany Khoury; sound (Dolby Digital), Moncef Taleb, Rana Eid, Julien Roig. Reviewed at Abu Dhabi Film Festival (New Horizons), Oct. 18, 2010. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Qays Cheikh Najib, Abdulatif Abdulhamid, Pierrette Katrib, Kinda Allouch, Jonny Komovitch, Abdulhakim Kouteifan, Anjo Rihane, Majed Riad, Jamal Choukeir, Fadi Subeih, Mazen Abbas, Nicole Kamato, Ward Haidar, Ali Ibrahim, Samer Ismaeel. (Arabic, French dialogue)
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