Lebanese director Mounia Akl’s compelling, if ultimately shallow, fiction-feature debut begins with the ominous arrival of a statue in the port of Beirut. It’s loaded onto a truck, then moved from the bustling city, where people shout curses as it passes by, to the mountainous countryside, where it will adorn the newly commissioned “green” landfill that just happens to be located next to the cloistered compound of the Badri family.
Patriarch Walid (Saleh Bakri), burned out by the stress of a life of activism and protest, moved to this off-the-grid utopia eight years prior. His outspoken singer wife, Souraya (Capernaum writer-director-actor Nadine Labaki), joined him with their daughter, Tala (Nadia Charbel), who is now a teenager feeling all the usual adolescent stirrings, as well as Walid’s mother, Zeina (Liliane Chacar Khoury), who, though humbled by age and illness, is filled to brimming with pithy and pointed opinions. Walid and Souraya’s youngest, 9-year-old Rim (played by both Ceana and Geana Restom), is the only member of the clan who has known nothing but this idyllic existence, which the new, badly managed dump (let’s call it what it is) now threatens.
Costa Brava, Lebanon
Not a total waste.
The trash of a country brought literally to one’s doorstep? The metaphor is obvious to the point of absurdity, and despite Akl’s confident directorial hand and her cast’s exceedingly natural rapport, it proves an unconvincing conceit. There is real-life precedent for some of the narrative particulars, since Akl is riffing, in part, on Lebanon’s 2015 waste crisis, which mobilized many in the activist sector until a recent financial collapse and a certain worldwide pandemic upended many of the gains and hopes. Still, in this fictional framework, the overarching systemic obstacles come off as deadweight contrivances to make facile, if still very understandable, political points.
The full scope of that failure isn’t immediately evident, however. So there is time to revel in the persuasively etched familial dynamics conjured by Akl and her performers, particularly Walid’s man-of-the-woods machismo, which breaks down the more the many women in his life assert the personal points of view that they’ve sacrificed so as to prop up his society-rejecting cravings.
Many of the best scenes in Costa Brava, Lebanon illustrate the characters’ internal longings via fantasy. In one nighttime scene, Souraya (who pines for the bustle of city life) falls into a trance in a room that suddenly starts moving about like a locomotive. In another, Tala’s lust for one of the landfill’s young male managers is visualized as a gently hazy erotic reverie, her legs, beaded with sweat, rubbing together beside the family’s makeshift pool, the water of which has turned blood-red because of underground pollution. Even Walid gets a beautifully poetic flight of fancy as, at his lowest emotional point, he imagines all the garbage bags in the landfill rising to the heavens like sky lanterns.
When it comes to individual people and their hopes, fears and desires, Akl has a talent for both the surreal flourish and the grounded insight. In this case, the bigger picture and the larger point are what prove elusive, leaving the whole enterprise feeling sadly schematic.