Theater helmer Georges Hachem makes his film debut with “Stray Bullet,” the literate, deeply felt story of a woman attempting to take control of her life. Set in 1976 during Lebanon’s civil war, this absorbing chamber piece avoids feeling stagebound thanks to considered lensing and editing that are beautifully modulated to evoke time, place and psyche. Star Nadine Labaki (“Caramel”) should provide initial enticement for international buyers who’ll then be wooed by the pic’s force, notwithstanding a few overdrawn moments. Regional arthouse play is likely to make a mark, while fest exposure could lure Euro satcasters.
For the most part, “Stray Bullet” displays a rare balance: It’s a period drama boasting exceptional art direction, yet doesn’t feel straitjacketed by time. Likewise, it’s a story of the struggle for self-realization that could stand on its own divorced from the setting, though the spirit of Lebanon’s dark years remains a vital element that underscores the film’s power.
The action takes place in one day, two weeks before the marriage of Noha (Labaki) and John (Nazih Youssef). For Noha’s family, the union comes as a relief, since they feared the independent-minded woman would wind up an old maid like her sister Layla (Takla Chammoun). However, Noha’s heart isn’t in this marriage, and she’s hesitantly arranged a meeting with ex-lover Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman), whose mother (Inaam Germanos) broke them up three years earlier.
The rendezvous, in his car amid forested hills near Beirut, doesn’t go well, and Noha walks away from her spineless ex, only to spy two rebels shooting their kidnap victim. Shaken, she makes it back to town for the engagement party thrown by her brother Assaf (Badih Bou Chacra), but that, too, ends badly when her desire for self-actualization violently clashes with her family’s expectations.
Broken engagements, both formal and informal, as well as frustrated people mustering the strength to act on their desires form the pic’s core, and in that sense, it’s a story that could be happening at any time or any place. But Hachem wants universality sublimated to a Lebanese specificity: The country is wracked by internecine conflict, and though life for Noha’s middle-class family goes on with relatively minor difficulties, there’s an inexorable slide into a tragedy whose causes are personal as well as national.
Lensing by Muriel Aboulrouss has been carefully designed to underline emotional states, nowhere more so than in the climactic dinner-party scene, where the observational camera acts as another guest in the spacious yet cramped apartment. A modified fish-eye lens and unexpected pull-backs generate disquieting sensations fully in keeping with Noha’s inner turmoil and sense of oppression.
Occasionally, the helmer miscalculates: An artificial monologue by Layla doesn’t quite work as a stand-alone scene, and an instance of clouds covering the moon, accompanied by an unsettling soundscape, over-forces an already upsetting sequence. But in general, Hachem’s evocation of atmosphere is very impressive, especially in the way he highlights the bucolic parts of the city and its surroundings, contrasted with the occasional stray bullet that reminds auds exactly where and when the story takes place.
Thesping is universally strong — Hachem is also an acting teacher — and it’s a pleasure to see Labaki in such a meaty, ruminative role. Blow-up from Super 16 adds a pleasantly grainy period quality that’s expertly matched by Petra Abousleiman’s art and costume direction, strong on 1970s browns, greens and yellows. Editing, too, is commendable, and the restrained use of music reinforces without pushing mood.