Costa Brava: A family nest in danger amidst Lebanon’s waste
At some point in your life, you and your family decide to leave your home town, a metropolis devastated by pollution, corruption and chaos. You move far enough from that place. You succeed to create your own rural heaven, where you can live in peace with your loved ones. One day, all of that chaos you left behind shows up at your doorstep, forcing you and your family to answer one simple question: should we stay or should we leave?
This is the engaging premise of Mounia Akl’s second feature, titled Costa Brava, Lebanon. The film, a Lebanese-European-Qatari co-production, was world-premiered in the Orizzonti Extra section of this year’s Venice Film Festival (1-11 September) and later presented in the Contemporary World Cinema strand of Toronto International Film Festival (10-18 September).
In detail, Akl follows the misfortunes of a Lebanese family, the Badris, who have escaped Beirut by seeking refuge in a beautiful mountain home. After eight years of tranquillity, a garbage landfill is suddenly built right outside their fence. It seems that there is no solution to get rid of it.
This unlucky family includes patriarch Walid (played by Saleh Bakri), his former rock singer wife Souraya (Nadine Labaki), Walid’s mother Zeina (Liliane Chacar Khoury) and the couple’s two daughters, teenager Tala (Nadia Charbel) and nine-year-old Rim (curiously portrayed by twin sisters Ceana and Geana Restom).
Quite clearly, here the garbage represents the violence and the troubled past they have left behind. The appearance of the damp shakes up the family’s dynamics and brings all of its members – and Walid and Souraya in particular – to awaken repressed feelings and to become estranged.
"After eight years of tranquillity, a garbage landfill is suddenly built right outside their fence. It seems that there is no solution to get rid of it"
The growing emotional turmoil is accompanied by the worsening of the ecological crisis. The strongest scene depicts the family members finding out that their makeshift pool’s water has turned red, probably because of underground infiltrations. The desperate attempts of removing the contaminated water powerfully reflect the lowest point reached by Walid, who is the most reluctant about leaving and seeking shelter elsewhere.
But Costa Brava, Lebanon is not just a family drama enriched by ecological themes. Interestingly, Akl’s work features several characters’ internal longings, which make their feelings and desires plain to see on screen. During one of the final sequences, for example, Walid imagines that all the garbage bags surrounding his home rise to the heavens and restore the landscape’s original beauty.
Furthermore, the character development built by Akl and screenwriter Clara Roquet, is solid and well-thought. We can get a clear sense of what Walid and Souraya used to do (and to be) back in Beirut, and why their political commitment almost became toxic for their long-term well-being. Zeina also presents herself as a very charismatic woman, who knows what is risky for her own health but, nonetheless, chooses to live her life light-heartedly and to the fullest until the end.
Despite her brief appearance, Walid’s sister Alia (Yumna Marwan, who plays a young, arrogant expat enjoying her new life in Colombia) also leaves a mark. She embodies that type of person who has left her family members behind, has no genuine interest in knowing what happened to them and, once she is forced to come back home, feels totally out of place, being unable to relate with all of them.
That being said, the most surprising character is actually Rim. The child was presumably born in the mountain home and has no knowledge of what her parents have left in Beirut. She has been leading an “out of time,” bucolic lifestyle. She has developed the strange habit of counting upwards, and she often does that to release tension or simply for fun. She also demonstrates an unexpected level of maturity along with the obvious naivety of her age. And, more importantly, her presence will be crucial for the resolution of the whole story.
"The family drama and the ecological themes are well balanced throughout, bolstered by excellent acting performances"
All in all, Costa Brava, Lebanon is a very compelling picture. The family drama and the ecological themes are well balanced throughout, bolstered by excellent acting performances. The script is based on a rather classical narrative mechanism. The family nest is the victim of an unexpected threat and the characters’ different ways to cope with the crisis open up the story’s main conflict.
Despite its simplicity, said approach works and it does justice to the country’s real socio-political context. Specifically, Lebanon is facing a serious waste crisis since 2015, aggravated by political inaction. According to the Human Rights Watch, about 85 percent of solid waste still goes to open dumps or landfills such as the one depicted in Akl’s film.
On another positive note, the director offers food for thought for those who live next to environmentally endangered areas – Taranto, Chernobyl and Volokolamsk, just to name a few – who keep on facing the decades-long dilemma of whether to stay or to leave.
On September 18, the feature won the prestigious NETPAC Prize, presented by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema to honour the best film from Asia having its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Hopefully, this will be the first of many well-deserved accolades.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland.
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni