Film Review: ‘Tramontane’

A young blind musician goes on a journey of discovery through Lebanon’s villages, searching for answers to his identity.

Tramontane Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

A young blind musician in Lebanon learns hard truths about his origins in Vatche Boulghourjian’s respectable, at times moving feature debut, “Tramontane.” Though not without first film flaws, this echt-Lebanese drama intriguingly delves into the innumerable layers of deceit and willful amnesia that originated in the civil war but continue to straightjacket the nation’s psyche. The protagonist’s literal journey of discovery through Lebanon’s rural areas becomes a quest for an unattainable truth, with the director-writer ultimately leaning towards the pragmatic “we must move on” form of resolution. Visuals are too dark, and there’s an over-reliance on shooting scenes through metal grates and doorways, but the lead actor holds attention and the film will make a solid festival selection.

His band will be playing in Europe, so Rabih (Barakat Jabbour) needs to get a passport. At the passport office he’s told his i.d. card is fake, and since his birth certificate was lost during the war (he’s born in 1989, one year before the conflict’s official end), he needs to get one from the hospital where he was born. His mother Samar (Julia Kassar) doesn’t like that idea and tells Rabih to let her brother Hisham (Toufic Barakat) sort it out.

It’s already clear there’s something shady about Uncle Hisham (rather too obviously so), which even blind Rabih recognizes, so he tries to get the document at the hospital. But they don’t have a copy either, and tell him to get a blood test. That’s when his mother delivers the bombshell: she’s not his mother. Hisham brought him to her during the war, rescuing the infant from a war zone after his family was killed.

Understandably Rabih wants to know who his real parents were, so he begins looking for answers. What he finds instead is a web of misinformation, as each person manufactures a different story to protect themselves and cover up war atrocities. Although episodic in the time-honored tradition of all road movies, these are the scenes that work best, offering encapsulated personalities along with a deeper sense of the trauma caused by the civil war.

They’re also non-metaphorical, even if they are designed to represent collective stories of atrocity and loss. Rabih’s blindness unfortunately is supposed to carry an extra weight of meaning, conveying the sense of Lebanon made sightless by the war and blinded by continuous lies that prevent national healing. That kind of push for inter-textuality threatens to turn Rabih into symbol rather than a flesh and blood figure, though thankfully Jabbour (who really is a blind singer-musician) makes Rabih real, and his music, as so often is the case, promises to bring factions together and move beyond the deceits.

Regarding metaphor, the camera relies too heavily on shooting through iron work and portals, creating an unnecessary (and in some cases irrelevant) interplay at once voyeuristic and distancing. The visuals are also too dark, though exteriors in and around the villages offer some respite with brightness and color. Location work is well-chosen and attractive, as are the songs.

Film Review: ‘Tramontane’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week), May 17, 2016. Running time: 105 MIN.

  • Production: (Lebanon-France-Qatar-UAE) A Rebus Film Production, Abbout Production, Le Bureau, Film Factory, Sunnyland Film, Enjaaz production, with the participation of l’Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et du Développement International, Institut Français. (International sales: The Bureau Sales, Paris.) Produced by Caroline Oliveira, Georges Schoucair. Co-producer, Gabrielle Dumon. Executive producers, Alexander Akoka, Philippe Akoka.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Vatche Boulghourjian. Camera (color, widescreen), James Lee Phelan; editor, Nadia Ben Rachid; music, Cynthia Zaven; production designer, Nadine Ghanem; costume designer, Lara Khamis; sound (5.1), Rana Eid; sound mix, Cedric Kayem; line producers, Abla Khoury, Lara Karam Chekerdjian; associate producer, Myriam Sassine; 1st assistant director, Andrew Hraiz.
  • With: Barakat Jabbour, Julia Kassar, Toufic Barakat, Michel Adabashi, Nadim Khodr, Georges Diab, Odette Makhlouf, Raymond Haddouni. (Arabic dialogue)