Unlike the complacent nature of this country there are many other countries in the world that are dealing with issues of political and religious divisiveness that have been around for centuries. This is the third foreign film this year to deal with the bitter and violent break-up of a country: the other two are EARTH forthcoming from India and CABARET BALKAN from former Yugoslavia.The time is 1975 and it is the eve of the partition of Beruit into a West and East section and two high-school aged friends -- Tarek (Rami Doueiri) and Omar (Mohommad Chamas) -- are there to witness their country split and the neighborhoods they know so well turn into a violent region they hardly recognize.
Both boys spend their time attending school, playing games, chasing girls and showing an early fascination with filmmaking but they realize their world will never be quite the same again since they must now learn to survive the turmoil and clashes around them. First time director Ziad Doueiri — noted for his work as a cameraman with Quentin Tarantino — now gets his chance to direct and the results are mixed. The look of the film is polished—with some cinema-verite techniques thrown in. The mostly non-professional performances are credible if not thin. The subject is inherently harrowing but -- maybe because it is a first film -- it doesn’t translate as well as director Doueiri would like. Part of the problem is that the plot goes exactly where one would expect it to go, characters introduced fall off to the side and the script often only scratches the surface of the Beruit issue. The film lacks the necessary urgency about war torn regions made known in other films about Beruit, in particular another film from Beruit made in the early 90s called HORS LA VIE.
There is no doubt that the division of the country is sad for everyone and it is strongly conveyed in the way the family and some of the locals are affected by it. The neighborhoods they live in become undone; locals begin to beat on one another traditional religious rivalries take over. Escalating tensions bring out the hot heads -- the most notable being a fat woman who berates everyone within shouting distance and a guerilla patrolman who claims to be protecting the neighborhood but is really no more than a bully. The film has a couple humorous bits the best being when Tarek hiding in a car during a military attack ends up riding over the border to the East side where he encounters an infamous brothel. Another being when he learns that he and his friends are safe if they run through the streets waving a woman’s underwear above their heads. As funny as this is the film still feels methodical and staged most of the way through. And as a result many of the incidents feel annoyingly contrived. For instance in the beginning Tarek is tossed out of class for being insolent to a French teacher. He walks into the hallway and happens to look out a window at the exact moment that the terrorist activity that starts the war is taking place.It’s good to see films from a region rarely seen in theaters and this film will find some fans because it is a good effort but because everything and everybody seems to be directed rather than naturally associated with the violence around them it falls short of greatness.-- Matt Langdon