A body­guard, a pop star, and a dead older brother

Wis­sam Charaf’s Heaven Sent more than mere lam­poon of Le­banese con­di­tion

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - RE­VIEW By Jim Quilty

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).

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