The misadventures of a young man on his way to a party offer an easy intro to new Lebanese cinema in “Falafel,” chronicling the country’s post-civil war emptiness with a light touch as it zaps between playful clowning and edge-of-violence darkness. Michel Kammoun’s first feature is loosely structured as an all-in-a-night “After Hours,” permeated by a feeling of danger and frustration. Sporting a winning protag and a catchy title, this desirable festival entry (it won best film laurels at Namur) could drive into selected offshore niches with astute handling.
Cool-looking, warm-hearted Toufic, aka Tou (Elie Mitri), is a regular guy who adores his kid brother and whose main objective is to meet a certain Yasmin (Gabrielle Bou Rached) at a party that night. But as a philosophical falafel maker cryptically advises, he should aspire to be like the runaway falafel that defies the laws of gravity and jumps out of the frying pan.
When a high-handed BMW owner knocks him down in a parking lot squabble, the humiliation pushes him to leave the safe haven of his partying friends and walk on the dark side.
Rather than simply switching gears to drama, Kammoun’s script gives viewers a ride uphill and down, alternating between Tou’s vengeful search for his nemesis and his concerned pals’ comic search for Tou. The outcome remains up in the air until the unexpected ending strikes a delightfully tender note.
Somewhat hidden beneath the entertaining action is the point that 16 years after the civil war, life in Lebanon has never normalized. Violence seems to be lying in wait for the innocent: Tou witnesses a roadside kidnapping, escapes from the police, buys a gun from a hysterical arms dealer, meets a series of half-mad characters, and so on. Though shot before the recent Israeli conflict, the film seems to hold a prescient warning of conflict lurking around every corner.
Boasting the good looks and good manners that will entrance young femme audiences, Mitri gives the action a strong masculine center. As his loyal but nerdish friend Abboudi, Issam Boukhaled stands out in an army of sharply drawn supporting characters.
Tech work swings in cinematographer Muriel Aboulrouss’ tactile re-creation of nighttime Beirut, where you can almost smell the falafels frying in neon-lit stands. Toufic Farroukh’s rocking original soundtrack further adds to the contemporary Mideast atmosphere.