Attempting to deal with the psychological aftermath of the Lebanese civil war and the destruction of Beirut (as the film notes, for the seventh time in its history), “Terra Incognita” traces the deep wounds these traumatic events have left on a group of thirtysomething men and women who find themselves unable to relate to life or to each other. In some sense a continuation of director Ghassan Salhab’s first feature, “Beirut Fantome,” this very personal pic has a diary-like feel that expresses an intense love of the martyred city. Screenplay is weak, however. It focuses exclusively on these lost characters at the expense of dramatic narrative. Without a story peg to hang their angst, film drags badly at a two-hour running time. Pic would stand a better chance of finding sympathetic auds who are interested in the region if some of the padding and repetitions were cut out. Soraya (Carole Abboud) is a guide who literally lives in the past, amid the Roman ruins she takes foreign tourists to view. The loss of her love Tarek (Rabih Mroueh), who chose to leave Lebanon years ago while she chose to stay, scarred her deeply. He returns to Beirut just as she is seeking visas to immigrate, but she feels as little for him now as she does for the series of casual lovers she beds each night.
Just as alienated is her friend Leila (Abla Khoury), who broods over the years she has wasted. Haidar (Carlos Chahine) is a radio news announcer who lives, eats and jogs alone. Nadim (Walid Sadek) simply locks himself in his room where he stares at detailed maps of Beirut on his computer screen.
Without a story to get involved in, however, these characterstend to do the same things from start to finish, locked in tedious immobility.
Setting poetic monologues and songs against the constant background noise of news reports, and juxtaposing busy construction sites with omnipresent soldiers and U.N. security forces, Salhab creates an almost documentary portrait of contemporary Beirut, with its chic bars and cafes and sophisticated middle-class homes. Local food, the sea, history and religion all find their way into the film. Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier overhead are a menacing but familiar part of the landscape.
In the central role, Abboud is a testy, convincing survivor of trauma whose natural urge to react, even to if it just means leaving the country, seems forever doomed to fail. Khoury shows a mind spinning in circles. The male actors, kept as low-key as possible, don’t have a big impact.
Jacques Bouquin’s clean, essential images give pic a sharp, sophisticated look. Another plus is Toufic Farroukh’s music with its modern Eastern sound.