Sous le ciel d’Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)

Moving on in my week of French Film Festival picks from this year is this quirky and odd drama with more than a hint of slapstick comedy about a relationship set against the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in the mid-1970s. It’s as much about the characters as it is about Beirut, I feel, and about the relationship we have to history as those who have been scarred by it.


I feel like a see a lot of very middling dramas in various film festivals, that are competent and about people dealing with stuff but don’t really bring anything particularly new to the screen either formally or in content. This film deals with the past, and it’s really focused on a relationship between two characters — Alba Rohrwacher’s Alice, a Swiss au pair who goes to help out a Lebanese family and for whom the film is named in the original French, and a Lebanese scientist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), and the life they have in Beirut together. But it’s also sub rosa about the relationship we have to Beirut’s past, largely lost in a destructive Civil War that started in the mid-70s and against the backdrop of which this plays out. The film is inventive in its formal strategies to depict this sense of displacement, but mounting scenes against a green screen with old photos of Beirut used as the backdrop, or just by occluding certain sights that characters are looking at, or by staging factional fighting using a few characters in masks on what looks like a soundstage, all of which imparts a heightened sense of loss of the past and adds a certain extra melancholy element to the film, which is otherwise rather brightly and quirkily set designed. It doesn’t work in every detail, but its distinctively different from most films set in the past, and Rohrwacher is herself always such an interesting screen presence, that I really liked this film.

Sous le ciel d'Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)CREDITS
Director Chloé Mazlo; Writers Yacine Badday and Mazlo; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Alba Rohrwacher, Wajdi Mouawad وجدي معوض; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 19 June 2021.

Lazzaro felice (Happy as Lazzaro, 2018)

As I do a few weeks’ of some of my favourite films I’ve seen this year, ones I haven’t already covered, I can’t possibly miss out this Italian film, which much to my surprise was one of my favourites and is sure to do well in the end-of-year polls (at least, in my one).


I never much connected with The Wonders (2014), though I felt that was largely down to me (there’s a lot that I liked about the film even so), so it’s with some relief that Alice Rohrwacher’s follow-up film really grabbed me and never let go. It’s unassuming in its way, with that 16mm photography by Hélène Louvart imparting an almost nostalgic air to proceedings, with the frame’s gently rounded edges and dust accumulating around the edge of the image (all of which is appropriate, perhaps, given the sort of timeless, cut-off, rural setting in which the film opens). Yet this is no rustic peasant drama, and pretty soon the film starts to take turns that make it feel like a fairy tale or a morality play, and by the time our wide-eyed Lazarus figure is reborn (played by Adriano Tardiolo), it starts to take on the feeling of an almost religious parable.

There’s a lot going on here — mostly revolving around themes of exploitation of labour and of compassion — but there are moments of pure lyrical poetry such as are rare in any films, a blending of image, movement, music and sound that elevate individual moments somehow, perceptibly, into a rapturous ecstasy (before returning to the squalor of everyday life). Which isn’t to say it’s a film that’s all off in the clouds like a Malick picture, because it always has that neo-realist feel, it’s just that even through these down-and-out characters, the grime amongst which they live, the few opportunities they’ve been given in life, there’s also something transcendentally cinematic about the storytelling, and a search for some kind of meaning that puts it among some of the more spiritual films I’ve seen (and I suppose makes it appropriately Italian).

Maybe I’m putting too much on it; it’s a film whose abiding mystery is such that I can’t quite express what I particularly loved about it. Generally, too, I am suspicious of any films that may make claims on some kind of vaunted artistic status (though I don’t think the film itself is pushing that), but this really does feel special.

Happy as Lazzaro film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Adriano Tardiolo, Alba Rohrwacher, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergi López; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 9 April 2019.

Le meraviglie (The Wonders, 2014)

This is, to my mind, a very strange film. It’s the kind of film where I’m left at the end wondering if I’ve just seen some kind of masterpiece, or something no more than merely a little bit odd and quirky. I can’t pretend to be able to resolve that issue, but the fact that it leaves me uncertain as to my response is, I think, a good sign. Partly the effect is to do with the odd blend of realisms both neo- and magical. For the former, it’s not just that the film is Italian, but it’s in the rural setting, the story of a family ekeing out a meagre living against the odds, the unflashy cinematography and the unglamorous actors. The family is a stern and humourless father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), a caring but busy mother Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) and four daughters, the eldest of whom is Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). They live and work in a shabby old rundown property, where they raise bees and harvest them for honey, and there’s plenty of detail about the day-to-day grind of making and selling honey. However, at some point, Gelsomina learns about a TV contest to find the best local artisanal producer, and she enters her family (much to the anger of Wolfgang). And this is where the magical bit seeps in, the sense of otherworldiness coming not just from the TV host (Monica Bellucci) but in subtle little ways — of which the family’s pet camel is probably the most overtly humorous — all fully integrated into the neorealist progression of the narrative. However you take to these touches, it’s still at heart a coming of age story, and a family drama, and a sensitive depiction of rural apiculture in a capitalist world that wants to fetishise such production far more than effectively support it. It exerts a strange fascination — despite the domineering patriarch, it’s a film filled with female creativity and imagination (quite aside from all the core technical credits, it also features a fantastic performance from unaffected newcomer Lungu as the central character) — and it’ll probably be a film I want to return to in a few years. Maybe I’ll have grown into it by then.

The Wonders film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 23 July 2015.