A bodyguard, a pop star, and a dead older brother
Wissam Charaf’s Heaven Sent more than mere lampoon of Lebanese condition
BEIRUT: It sometimes seems that Lebanese filmmakers are captive to their country’s recent history, more somehow than their colleagues overseas. It’s not because directors only make movies about Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War. Most do not.
It may be that the history not only dictates what stories are told but how they’re told.
Wissam Charaf’s “Heaven Sent” is a fiction film premised on how this country’s Civil War resonates though contemporary Lebanon. It addresses these themes seriously without ever stooping to drama. At times amusing, it never becomes proper comedy.
The story centers on Samir and Omar, two brothers who haven’t seen each other since Omar was a child. Samir (Rodrigue Sleiman), the elder, was a Civil War fighter who was reported killed. Omar (Raed Yassin) works as a nightclub bouncer.
The two brothers meet when Samir shows up at the door of a subterranean nightclub and is denied entry by two of Omar’s colleagues – one of them hilariously wielding nunchakus (a martial arts weapon from the Bruce Lee era).
Omar is summoned to help out and he promptly head-butts Samir to unconsciousness. Only then does he recognize his diseased older brother.
Omar and his pal Rami (Said Serhan) take Samir’s limp body back to the family flat. A doctor is summoned to examine the once-dead brother. He’s healthy enough, the medic concludes, but his feet are in bad shape, so he prescribes an urgent pedicure.
Samir eventually comes to but, when Omar asks him where he’s been all these years, he’s not very helpful.
“Let’s just say I escaped,” he smiles humorlessly.
Samir remains a question mark for the duration.
Omar too has a blankness about him. Stocky and shaven-headed, he looks the part of a thug, but alongside Samir he seems clumsy and inept. When the younger brother seems confused when trying to reassemble his Glock automatic handgun, Samir does it blindfolded in seconds.
Omar is about to be promoted – working as a bodyguard for Yasmin (Yumna Marwan), the raunchy pop singer who’s performing the night Samir materializes. She needs a beefed-up security detail because she too is transitioning – from sexy subpop celebrity to elected MP.
It seems she has an impact. After a press conference to announce her candidacy, most of Yasmin’s security detail is killed in a massive explosion. She survives only because Omar shields her from the blast. He wakes up in the hospital to find her thankyou note taped to a rocket launcher.
For his part, Rami, who sells classic cars for a living, has decided to migrate to Germany. “I need to learn German,” he says.
“Look,” Omar tells him over a handful of hamburger, “the weather’s really cold in Germany and the food sucks.”
“What book should I read to learn German quickly?” he persists.
“‘Mein Kampf,’” Omar replies, adding: “You can find it everywhere nowadays.”
Silly as Omar, Rami and Yasmin’s plans seem, all hands are aspiring to better things. Samir remains preoccupied with the past.
Once he’s back on his feet, he discretely tries to find a fellow he calls “Castro,” a comrade from the bad old days who’s fashioned his wartime experience into a peacetime career.
He also convinces Omar to take him to the family house in the mountains, so they can visit their mother’s grave. Here the story veers near closest to somber.
“Heaven Sent” had its world premiere last month in the Cannes film festival’s Acid (Association du Cinéma Indépendant pour sa Diffusion) selection. Charaf’s film came home for its Beirut premiere Thursday evening at the Lebanese Film Festival.
It’s easy to read “Heaven Sent” as an offbeat comedy. Indeed, Charaf displays an admirable sense of black comic timing.
While the camera pans over the city, a radio announcer comments on the recent lull in suicide bombings that have afflicted the city. As she pauses, the silence is punctuated by a blast.
Indeed at times it’s possible to misread Charaf’s film as just another low-budget comedy on the Lebanese condition. This is because a couple of early scenes don’t work all that well.
When Samir awakes from his head butt, for instance, he hears the Lebanese national anthem blaring from Omar’s TV. He races to the salon and shouts “Attention!” bringing the slumbering Omar to his feet.
Though it does have shortcomings, Charaf’s film is interesting because of its tone vis-à-vis the narrative. The film’s themes – the wartime disappeared, the culture of violence that has persisted in the country – are most often framed as dramas and sentimental melodramas.
The language that Charaf employs is, by comparison, spare, blackly comic, emotionally distanced and generally sentiment-free. If the movie’s themes are familiar, its tone feels unique.
Its more effective gags are reminiscent of the early miniatures of Charaf’s countryman Elie Khalife, but there’s much more going on here than slapstick. When the plotting veers from low-budget realism to something else – by turns farcical and fantastical – it resembles the work of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson.
Early in the film, for instance, when four green coverall-clad gents of non-Arab ancestry find Samir’s body, prone in the middle of the road, they raise his form over their heads like the fallen hero in a Greek epic. Then they drop him in the back of a pickup truck. It’s as if they were collecting someone’s garbage.
The film co-stars Yumna Marwan as Yasmin, a raunchy pop singer who’s decided to go into politics.
Rodrigue Sleiman, left, and Raed Yassin in a scene from Wissam Charaf’s feature film debut “Tombé du ciel”(Heaven Sent).