Beginning with documentary style footage of Lebanon, Chloé Mazlo’s debut feature, Skies of Lebanon, takes the form of a family home movie. Set during the Lebanese Civil War and inspired by the life stories of Mazlo’s grandmother, what follows is a film with a family at its core. It’s a family that is fractured, yet has seemingly never been closer. Due to the constant violence and unease moving throughout Beirut, Alice and Joseph’s family all come under one roof to remain safe. Introduced by way of a stunningly moving montage, one would assume Skies of Lebanon is strictly a celebration of life. Prior to the conflict beginning, the film treats its viewers to gorgeous animation (of several kinds), quirky cinematic techniques, and vibrant imagery that perfectly rides the line between realistic and dreamlike. Its wonderful production design and warming familial bond set the stage for a beautiful little film. What begins with Alice meeting Joseph in a small shop blossoms into a full family unit. As they regularly share meals and spend the holidays with one another, the reality of living in Beirut in the mid 1970’s begins to seep into the film.
It’s this juxtaposition between the two halves of Skies of Lebanon where it is at its most interesting. Many films may suffer from a sense of tonal balance, and it’s usually quite clear. Yet with this film, Mazlo and co-writer Yacine Badday are able to capitalize on using tonal imbalance as a strength. While doing everything possible to keep up the appearance of a thriving family unit, it understandably proves itself to be a rather difficult endeavor. With no sign of peace on the horizon as dreams are shattered and lives are cruelly cut short, the picture-perfect family that we started with quickly begins to show signs of panic. An unspoken uncertainty lies among the guests of the packed apartment. Yet, even with all this worry, the film manages to keep up appearances with its delightful ambience; Which only makes the tragic moments hit that much harder. For as much as we can hope to block out the atrocities of the world on a daily basis, they seem to always find a way to seep in through the cracks.
As Skies of Lebanon reveals the painful truth to both its characters and its audience, the use of multiple cinematic techniques feels relevant. It’s far more than a simple stylistic flex, but instead serves a narrative purpose. As the civil war intensifies, the film dives further and further into moments of utter surrealness of both past and present. The past can’t hurt us as much if we think of it in terms of adorable stop-motion animation, right? As long as Alice’s family can all sit down together and have a joyous meal or game night, they can continue living in their beautiful home. All they must do is think of the poem introduced early in the film, regarding the cedar trees of Lebanon. Known for their longevity and resistance to decay, Alice too will stay in Lebanon as long as it takes if it means never returning to the home of her parents. Cinematically, all these styles add a fun sense of playfulness on the part of the filmmakers. But that contrast between the cinematic realm of Skies of Lebanon and the story we are actually witnessing underlines the deep tragedies that occur throughout the film.
Skies of Lebanon uses the backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War to indicate just how fractured everything in the film may end up. As their city quite literally crumbles around them, the familial celebrations that audiences can emotionally resonate with are stripped away quickly and without so much as a whimper. Each character reacts differently to their situation, and as Mazlo literally shows the divide between characters at points, the scary realism of the issue at hand reveals itself. Every character choice made in this film is never looked down upon, even if at times, it clearly is not the most beneficial. The family we are introduced to all handle their emotions as best as they know how; Sometimes it is with each other, but other times maybe on their own out of pure desperation. Skies of Lebanon is tragic yet beautiful, hopeful yet scared. Mazlo seems acutely aware of the inability to determine the best course of action in a time of such atrocity and peril. If there is anything to be recommended though, it’s that our loved ones should be there to get us through even the most dire of situations.
Dekanalog is releasing Skies of Lebanon in select U.S. Cinemas on July 22nd.