In the popular imagination of the West, Lebanon is most frequently invoked as a place of ruin and strife, not romance and enchantment. The debut feature from the filmmaker Chloé Mazlo, “Skies of Lebanon,” is, among other things, an intriguing swing of the pendulum of depiction.
Starring the Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher, the movie opens in 1977, as Alice, her character, is leaving the country. On board a ship, she begins writing a letter. In the first of many visual surprises, the movie switches modes, to stop-motion animation, as Alice recounts an oppressive 1950s childhood in Switzerland. After training to become an au pair, she takes an assignment as far from home as available: to Beirut.
The Lebanese capital is here depicted via diorama-like frames with vintage photos for backgrounds. The effect is storybook. So is the narrative, for a while: Every day Alice takes her infant charge to a small cafe, and there she meets Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), a charming rocket engineer whom she’ll fall in love with and marry.
Their life is beautiful, for a while. Alice’s extended family is delightful and the couple’s daughter, Mona, is sensitive and talented. The movie’s treatment of the civil war that rips Lebanon apart, and eventually shatters Alice’s world, is mixed. The depiction of how ordinary people try to insulate themselves from civic strife (a scene in which a pajama party is interrupted by an air raid, for instance) is sharp. Showing the warring factions as two small gangs on a street corner — divided by a pile of sandbags, with fighters costumed in masks and in one case a feather boa — feels glib. The movie’s openheartedness eventually wins the day, though.
Skies of Lebanon
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters.