Movie Review: There’s no escaping the world, even in “Costa Brava, Lebanon”

A father tries to check himself and his family out of a civilization he sees as hopelessly corrupt and doomed in “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” a parable of parenting and pollution set in Lebanon “in a near future.”

Co-writer/director Mounia Aki takes on “Mosquito Coast” themes for a debut feature whose ironic title — the “real” Costa Brava is the northern Spanish Riviera — reminds us that “paradise” can be anywhere, and that you don’t save paradise by checking out of the real world as an escape.

Aki, who once directed a short film on Beirut’s garbage crisis, uses that as the backdrop of this story of two people who met at a street protest, but years later have put their placards down and fled to the mountains, “the last green space” in the country. Walid (Saleh Bakri) and the former pop star Souraya (Nadine Labaki), their teen daughter Tala (Nadia Charbel) and irrepressible pre-tween Reem (Geana Restom) raise their own vegetables and chickens, off the grid with his mother (Liliane Chacar Khoury) on a mountain oasis that’s been in his family for years.

“Beirut will never change,” he says (in Arabic with English subtitles) of their former hometown, hot and polluted and overrun with trash as it drifts from crisis to crisis.

But Beirut’s problem is about to be dumped into their backyard. The harbinger of it is this statue they see as it is set up on land Walid didn’t even realize his moved-to-Norway sister had sold. The statue? “It’s of the president,” a functionary, Tarek (François Nour). Yes, they’re that far out of the loop. Still, it’s not exactly a good likeness.

The country has bamboozled foreign investors for yet another “save Lebanon from itself” project, a “green” eco-friendly waste dump carved out of undeveloped land and literally in their front yard.

It doesn’t matter that Walid and pretty much any countryman polled on the street knows how this will play out. “Green” is just “a PR stunt.” an environmental disaster is being visited upon them all, with dust, plastic bags of plastic garbage, heavy machinery and all-night-lights. An election is coming, and the debacle won’t become obvious until after election day. But taking pictures for his “lawsuit” is all Walid is willing to do about it. And yelling at his sell-out sister (Yumna Marwan) by phone.

They won’t “take a bribe” to leave, won’t sell out. We’ll see who blinks first.

Aki uses this struggle as the ultimate test for a family — a wife who misses their old cosmopolitan life and her notoriety, a husband lost in dogma, unable to reengage with the world, a mouthy little girl who idolizes him, ordering workers to “LEAVE” and throwing fruit at them when they don’t, and an isolated teenaged daughter who takes a shiny to hunky Tarek, who isn’t above returning the attention.

Salty, jaded, seen-it-all and supposedly dying — or emigrating to Colombia — grandma seems like the only one who isn’t taking sides.

Walid is “filling (Reem’s) head with horror stories” about the state of the planet and the nightmare of Beirut as a place to live. Mom is flattered by the attention of garbage workers who remember her pop career. And granny isn’t above cadging smokes off older workers, letting them use their bathroom during construction and shrugging off the statement that makes to the corrupt and their corrupted work force.

That’s no way to win a stand-off, sister.

As in “Mosquito Coast,” Bakri gives us a sense of Walid tilting at windmills, with the kids rebelling against it. But Labaki’s force-of-nature Souroya gives us the impression that she could shout down her “eccentric” husband at any moment and move this mountain, or them off of it.

A mix of overt shouting matches and subtler moments illustrate this war of wills, ideologies and parenting styles. And the odd hallucinatory reverie reminds the characters, and the viewer, that try as we might, there’s no wishing a big problem away when it comes bulldozing and dynamiting at your door.

If you want something to change, you’ve got to get back in the fight, back on the barricades, back in heroic light every parent wants their children to see them in.

Rating: unrated, mild violence, sexuality, smoking, profanity

Cast: Nadine Labaki, Saleh Bakri, Nadia Charbel, Geana Restom, François Nour and Liliane Chacar Khoury

Credits: Directed by Mounia Akl, scripted by Mounia Akl and Clara Roquet. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:44

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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