The sun is shining, the tabbouleh is made and neighbours are pitching in on a beautiful morning in a Lebanese village. Therese, the headstrong wife of the village mayor, is expecting her daughter Ghada home from Dubai any minute for her engagement, and everything has to be perfect for the arrival of the suitor and his parents. As she putters around the kitchen, Therese chats with a photograph of her brother, killed during the Lebanese-Syrian war 20 years prior. His framed picture takes pride of place in every room, serving as a constant reminder that she will not suffer any Syrians in her life. But nobody has told Therese that her soon-to-be son-in-law is Syrian.
Meanwhile, a taxi cab transports suitor Samer and his parents into Lebanon, his mother less than pleased that a bride could only be found on the other side of a humiliating border crossing. And as Mayor Maurice drives his daughter home from the airport, falsely assuring her that her mother has been informed of Samer’s nationality, an old boyfriend decides that today is the day he will win Ghada back. The stage is set for an explosive confrontation.
The first achievement of Sophie Boutros’s directorial debut is its effectiveness in bringing comic relief to a fraught subject that is timely, and one with which many identify. As the ongoing Syrian crisis forces more and more refugees into an already strained Lebanon, past animosities outweigh compassion for some. Co-written by Boutros and Nadia Eliewat, the story serves to hold up a mirror to our society and humour
is the pill that allows us to accept what we see in the reflection.
Thanks to exceptional work from cinematographer Rachel Aoun and art director Elsie Moukarzel, in addition to Boutros’s fitting choice of forced scene compositions, Mahbas is a great looking film, blending the warmth of a traditional Lebanese village with a dramatic colour palette that lends weight to the proceedings. Appealingly authentic, the ordered interiors not only reflect Therese’s attempt to deal with her grief by controlling everything around her but also help to ratchet up the claustrophobia as the conflict unfolds.
When it comes to the ensemble cast, we’re treated to a quartet of veteran performers in Julia Kassar and Ali El Khalil as the Lebanese parents and Nadine Khoury and Bassam Kousa as their Syrian counterparts. Each inhabits his or her character with ease—the mothers wearing their resentments on their sleeves, the fathers fumbling their efforts to lighten the mood—while Betty Taoutal as the kooky neighbour earns the film’s biggest laughs. It’s therefore excusable that the young couple at the centre, played by Serena Chami and Jaber Jokhadar, are outshone by their seniors, though their relationship is refreshingly layered.
The third act suffers from a slowing in pace as we see the results of Therese’s machinations. Her frantic attempt to destroy the union has backfired, leaving relationships all around close to ruin.
The hard shift to drama may not have worked as successfully as the film’s more lighthearted segments, but there is a one-sided conversation between Therese and her brother’s picture that works well in bringing home the message. It’s a credit to the co-writers that the natural dialogue keeps viewers engaged to the very end, and the subject keeps them thinking long after the movie is over.
Verdict Natural dialogue, quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, a brilliant cast and striking visuals make this a must-see. Mahbas is a thought provoking, timely film that gets even better on second viewing.