Lebanon, 1975. How Talal, an affluent young man becomes a warlord; how Soraya, the girl he leaves behind, tries to help him in abducting a businessman; how Nabil, a press photographer deals drugs under the cover of the civil war and poses as the hero he aspires to be but is not at all…
A commentary on the film from The New York Times
The Lebanon we see in Maroun Baghdadi’s ”Little Wars” is not the place we saw in another recent film about Lebanon, Volker Schlondorff’s ”Circle of Deceit,” nor even the place we see on the news. Unlike the German Mr. Schlondorff, who brought back a visitor’s sensationalized vision of the battlefront, the Lebanese Mr. Baghdadi has made a much quieter film.
The peculiar rhythm of ”Little Wars” is slow to reveal itself. But it gradually becomes apparent that this is an unusual work, somewhat hazy but highly imaginative, in which the elements of plot and action are only minor parts of a larger scheme. Mr. Baghdadi sets up three chief characters who don’t really connect, and he paints a wartime backdrop that breeds anxiety and uncertainty but not (as in Mr. Schlondorff’s worthy but very different film) urgency and terror. For people living in a war zone, Mr. Baghdadi’s characters lead remarkably fearless lives.
The performers don’t seem like actors, and they function more as figures before the camera than as dramatic players. Soraya (Soraya Khoury), a pretty and rather fashionable young woman who can’t bring herself to leave Beirut, is awaiting the return of her lover Talal (Roger Hawa), the son of a Bey in a mountain community. The Bey has been kidnapped, and Talal has returned home to his feudal clan. Meanwhile, Soraya meets Nabil (Nabil Ismail), a photographer and prankster with a certain cynicism about war and heroism.
Nabil will tell a telephone caller that he is ”at the front” when he’s really in an American nightclub with Rod Stewart playing on the jukebox. Trying to galvanize the staff in an emergency ward, he’ll say that a friend hurt during a bungled drug transaction is actually a war casualty, and that he, Nabil, is holding a live grenade. His professional specialty is faking battle portraits of customers who, he says, ”all want to impress their mothers or their girls.”
”Are these all martyrs?” Soraya asks, looking at his portrait gallery. ”If they were all martyrs, the war would be over,” Nabil replies. The specifics of the war are deliberately not discussed. In fact, Mr. Baghdadi has gone to great lengths not to indicate the partisan identities of any of his characters; no one is identified as Christian or Moslem, and scenes of Talal’s mountain home were reportedly filmed in three different spots, so Lebanese viewers would not associate him with any particular region. The film presents different Lebanese personalities rather than different political stands: the woman who is paralyzed by indecisiveness, the reckless modern man steeped in pop culture (Nabil), the son (Talal) of a traditional family who has seemingly escaped tradition but may be forced to embrace it anew. Also in the film is a waiter who dreams of emigrating, meeting a nice American girl, having a civil ceremony and becoming ”Sam Fleifel, American Citizen.”
”Little Wars” is on the weak side as drama, and it’s somewhat obscure as a political statement, but as a still-life and mood piece it is highly effective. Miss Khoury gives the film a quiet, compelling center. And the score by Gabriel Yared is extremely enveloping, defining the film’s viewpoint as distinctly as anything else does. The music is a delicate hybrid of jazz, electronic modern sounds and the jangling rhythms of traditional Lebanese instruments, with elements of the old and the new intermingling gracefully. It’s a score full of tension and contrast, but there is also a hint of harmonious resolution. That makes it an ideal accompaniment for the troubled, complex, somewhat muted imagery that Mr. Baghdadi brings to the screen.
Subtitles:English, French, Arabic