THE MUSLIM TEENAGERS IN ZIAD DOUEIRI'S WEST Beirut can expertly identify the various military planes that fly high overhead. They laughingly take part in the political protests that swell through the streets, parroting the adults' heated chants without fully comprehending or caring about the meaning of the words. And when a terrorist attack on a public bus interrupts their school day -- a day in which lessons are rooted in stupefying indoctrination into the worship of all things French ("France gave you your country, created your borders and gave you peace," drones a teacher) -- the teens rejoice. Born into a state of perpetual upheaval, they -- especially the main character, Tarek -- have subconsciously rendered the chaos around them banal. West Beirut, set in the Lebanon of 1975, chronicles a coming-of-age tale where the force of centuries-old conflicts shatters that banality and rips away the blinders of childhood.
When the camera first focuses on Tarek (Rami Doueiri, younger brother of the director), he's goofing off in school, infuriating a dour teacher to the delight of his classmates. He's a typical teenage boy: flighty, horny and amused out of proportion by his own wiseass hijinks. Thirty-one people are killed in the bus massacre, Muslims are restricted while Christians move freely, bombs detonate in the streets. But Tarek and his preternaturally wise best friend, Omar (the scene-stealing Mohamad Chamas), are immersed in their own hormone-outlined existence that finds them scoping out beautiful girls and grooving to American disco. After May (Rola Al Amin), a cute Christian girl, moves into Tarek's apartment building, he falls for her immediately, oblivious to the crucifix dangling around her neck. Omar, struck speechless when he spots the ornament, is dumbfounded by Tarek's inability to grasp the potential gravity of his new crush. (Omar derisively dubs May "Virgin Mary.")
Director Doueiri (cameraman on all of Quentin Tarantino's films), who now lives in both France and the U.S., drew from childhood memories to make West Beirut. He lingers on faces and pulls intimacy from open spaces, maintaining a crucial double vision in the film, using the distance of time and place to painstakingly fill the gaps in a teenager's narrow world-view. From the vantage point of the present, Doueiri reaches back to create a necessarily layered context for us even as he simultaneously captures the cushiness of the boy's myopic refuge: Tarek is at times infuriatingly self-absorbed, clueless to the ramifications of his own stupidity. A plot twist, in which he stumbles into a brothel that welcomes Christians and Muslims, inspires the idea that the conflict between the two religious groups could quickly be resolved if only Christian Militia leader Bashir Gemayel and Yasir Arafat would meet at the house of ill repute.
Initially, it appears that the director is simply going for a crude, sex-joke spin on the love-sees-no-borders sentiment that girds the relationship between Tarek and May. A flare-up in the whorehouse, though, shatters that notion, just as the unrest in the streets wreaks emotional havoc on Tarek's home. Doueiri clearly wants to believe that all you need is love -- or a good lay -- to save the world, but he's smart enough to know that neither is enough. Still, the writer-director's mingling of a humorous coming-of-age tale with the horrors of cultural and political unrest can be exasperating, despite being rooted in truth. One storytelling tack is constantly stepping on the other. Near the end of the film, Tarek tearfully says to Omar, "Have you ever seen someone struck by disaster and you think, 'Thank God I'm not that person?' Now, I feel like I'm that person." The moment is unexpectedly moving, and it's a setup for an even more heart-wrenching scene. West Beirut is one of those good if not exceptional movies that builds slowly toward a single devastating passage that makes the whole worthwhile. As the final music and images spill out, you realize they're a lament for Tarek's grinning oblivion -- a childhood doomed to brevity. It's also Doueiri pulling off a dazzling hat trick, transforming competent filmmaking into poetry, if only for a moment.
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WEST BEIRUT | Written and directed by ZIAD DOUEIRI | Produced by LA SEPT ARTE and 3B PRODUCTIONS Released by Cowboy Booking International | At Laemmle's Music Hall