Edinburgh International Film Festival : Skies of Lebanon / The Road Dance

This was, without doubt, the film that gave me the most pleasure at this year’s EIFF. Chloe Mazlo charts the life of Alice (Alba Rohrwacher), a Swiss girl who leaves home in the 1950s for a job as an au pair in Lebanon, and falls in love with both the country and with Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad) a scientist involved in the Lebanese space programme. (I confess I had no idea that there ever had been such a programme – I’m better informed now!)

They marry, raise a daughter and enjoy a happy life together, Alice’s love for her adopted homeland growing ever stronger as the years go by. Then in the mid-70s, their happiness, along with everyone else’s in the country, is shattered by the outbreak of civil war – a war that will dominate their lives for many years to come. Their daughter leaves for Paris to be with her boyfriend, and Joseph suggests Alice should join her. But Alice stubbornly refuses, unwilling to be chased from the place where she lives, the place she loves.

Mazlo’s inspiration comes, I understand, from stories she heard from her grandmother. She does them justice, infusing the lives of her central characters with love and bathing them in sunshine even as they are enveloped by the civil war. Her clever use of animation and, on occasion, painted backdrops that convey the passage of time, adds a warmth to the tale. A film made with love for both people and place.

I always want to evangelise for a film shot in Scotland, particularly when it’s being shown at a festival. But in this case, I’m finding it a struggle. Beautifully shot though it is, the unrelenting grey of the sky is matched by the unrelenting grey of the lives of the characters, lives of drudgery and toil to scrape a living from the land. We have a word here, dreich, that most accurately sums this up.

There is a lack of depth here, even those central to the story have little to flesh them out and thereby give us any way of connecting with them. Only Kirsty (Hermione Corfield) stands out in any way in a story that comes across as a somewhat inferior version of Sunset Song.

Her rape, which she keeps to herself for fear that the narrow minds of the tiny village will blame her, occurs at the road dance, an occasion to mark the setting off of the young men to fight in the first world war. At night on a hillside, she is attacked from behind, and left with no knowledge or memory of who her assailant might have been. Left pregnant from this attack and her young man reported killed in battle, it is a nightmare situation for any woman, far less one from a community such as this.

Somehow, though, the film fails to convince. Whether through lack of direction or depth of writing or a combination of the two, it all seems somewhat superficial and does not engage us as it should. I may lay myself open to suggestions of sexism here, but I can’t help feeling that this would have benefitted greatly from a woman’s touch. I have to say, too, that after an hour and three quarters of misery, the “vintage Disney” ending seemed inappropriately tacked on.

Jim Welsh

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