Chloe Mazlo’s directorial debut has a lot going for it. Charm, intrigue, empathy, and, most of all, creativity. It’s both an interesting character drama and a nuanced look at the cost of war. It’s nothing if not ambitious for a first film.
We open on a woman named Alice (Alba Rohrwacher). She is writing a letter to explain her life and what has led to where she is. From there, the film is recounted via flashbacks. Initially they are of the nostalgic kind – as Alice leaves 1950s Switzerland to work in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. There she falls in love with a rocket scientist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), has a daughter Mona (Isabelle Zighondi), and establishes good work and friendships. It’s as idyllic as you can get.
But then the 1975 Lebanese Civil War breaks out, and the best years of Alice’s life threaten to come undone. Death and violence are everywhere, and emigration even more so. Over one million people left Lebanon during this time, and Alice is conflicted over whether she and her family should do the same.
Among the topics Mazlo and co-writer Yacine Badday are exploring with their film is that of love, and the many forms love can take. This is because two different forms are in direct conflict with each other – love of family and love of home. Over her years living here, Alice has fallen in love with Lebanon and isn’t sure she wants to leave because of the war. She’s made it her home after all, so why should she? Joseph feels a similar way, as his work may one day send the first Lebanese person into space. Why should he compromise that out of fear or pressure? But does their reasoning compare with the threat of death should they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or support the wrong side?
They’re compelling foods for thought, and Mazlo adopts a unique blend of live-action and animation to tell her story. Stop-motion, be it of models or clay figures, make up the scenes of Alice’s past in Switzerland, and are utilised to quantify large pieces of information to the audience, such as the sheer numbers of people fleeing Beirut via plane. However, the colour palette and even some of the backgrounds adopt an array of colours and pictures to enhance the romanticised feeling of the location. It feels very much like a Wes Anderson film at times, but it also helps distinguish the two tones the film juggles. When it is thinking nostalgically to the past, the choice of presentation, as well as the cinematography and editing, assist the choice. But when war and dilemma settle in, gritty realism replaces whatever romanticisation existed previously.
It’s an original demonstration of genre that goes beyond your average war film. It’s far more interested in the civilians caught in the crossfire than it is the heroics or evils of partaking in war. It accomplishes this through stunning character drama of which husband and wife or parent and child are often at opposing ends on what to do, as well as striking visuals, compelling themes on pride and even the odd touch of comedy. This includes an especially bizarre image where five armed militants with balaclavas are sitting around Alice’s dining room table politely eating a meal. But perhaps my favourite is a strange moment where the politicians are seen wearing wolf heads, an obvious but nonetheless effective metaphor.
I get the impression that Mazlo and her team threw everything they could in terms of imagination and commentary at her film, and the results speak for themselves. It’s a sturdy, heartfelt drama with rich characters and mesmerising filmmaking. With thought provoking dilemmas, great acting (particularly from Rohrwacher), and confident direction from Mazlo, there is a lot to glean and appreciate from Skies of Lebanon. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing where Mazlo’s career takes her next.
Director: Chloe Mazlo
Writers: Chloe Mazlo & Yacine Badday
Stars: Alba Rohrwacher, Wajdi Mouawad, Isabelle Zighondi