Zain Al Rafeea, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Yousef
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…a tough watch, but it is also an incredibly impressive piece of truth-telling cinema.
In The Divine Comedy, the great medieval poet Dante imagines nine circles of hell, each more anguished than the one before. This searing drama from the Lebanon presents us with a Dantesque view of the depths of human suffering.
It is a bold departure for actor/writer Nadine Labaki. The film most will remember her for was the golden-lit Caramel (2007) mostly set in a beauty salon. In a strange way there are links though, because both films show us an intimate look at an aspect of Middle Eastern society that is rarely shown.
In this new one, we follow the fate of a 12-year-old boy called Zain (a truly astonishing performance by young Zain Al Rafeea). His parents are both poor and largely incompetent or uninterested. Their lives are chaotic, and they can’t even really keep track of their endless kids. Such is the brutal reality of the milieu that the parents more or less ‘sell off’ their young daughter Sahar (Cedra Izam). As she was the only thing in Zain’s world that provided any succour, he cannot forgive his parents and it drives him over the edge. Zain spends most of his time scrabbling amongst the rubbish tips and back alleys of Beirut and looking for Sahar or thinking about ways to avenge her. He also shows himself to be more capable of taking care of people than his parents and he takes a younger kid, Yonas under his wing. That too has elements of further tragedy.
Labaki has said in an interview that this is a film she has wanted to make for a long time. To her it is about an ever-present reality in the borders of Lebanon and Syria today; the mistreated and exploited children, the plight of refugees and immigrants, and the cruel way all this gets airbrushed out of history. Labaki really wants us to care (she used as many non-actors as she could to intensify the authenticity) and the passion behind the project propels it to great effect. This is a tough watch, but it is also an incredibly impressive piece of truth-telling cinema.