BEIRUT: There is a moment in Alejandro I??rritu’s “Babel” when, for some in the audience, it becomes a “great” film. It comes near the end of the three apparently free-standing stories coiled together by I??rritu’s collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, and washes over you as a moment of illumination.
A U.S. citizen who’s just survived a harrowing ordeal in Morocco picks up a telephone, calls home and tells his Mexican servant he wants to talk to his two kids. After a moment or two, you recall having listened in on this conversation near the start of the film, from the perspective of the man’s servant and children.
It’s not an “Ah ha!” moment of the sort that unlocks the vexing mystery at the center of a detective story. Hearing the Moroccan half of the phone conversation simply confirms how two of the movie’s three stories are connected.
The somehow devastating illumination of this moment lies in realizing that, contrary to what mainstream filmmaking convention has taught us to assume, these two stories have not been unfolding concurrently.
Some critics, who do not think “Babel” is great, suggest that Arriaga’s gesture is ultimately empty because it does less to illuminate the narrative’s themes than it does the cleverness of the writer.
The spirit of I??rritu and Arriaga is lodged in the pores of “Blind Intersections,” whose world premiere will open the Beirut International Film Festival Wednesday evening.
Like the work of I??rritu and Arriaga, the debut feature film collaboration of Lebanese screenwriter Nibal Arakji (also the film’s principal producer) and director Lara Saba is a narrative of three loosely connected stories.
Rather than roving over three continents to underline the diffuse nature of their plot, Saba and Arakji have set all their tales in contemporary Beirut. Its residents are fond of observing that “Beirut is a village,” but class differences here (sectarian affiliation never raises its head during the film) are enough to ensure that, glancing encounters aside, the richest and poorest of its citizens can exist separately.
The central cord of the plot is that of Nour (Ghida Nouri), a university student who is attractive but too hard working and serious minded to be distracted by her frivolous, well-off friends. When disaster suddenly tears through her struggling middle class family, a series of financial and emotional dominos start toppling. Save the insincere reassurances of social convention and the sympathetic tears of her wheelchair-bound grandmother, Nour must face these trials alone.
A few rungs up the social ladder reside India and Malak (Carol Hajj and Charbel Ziade). Though Malak’s line of work is vague, his designer suits, boardroom meetings and his flat’s unobstructed sea view of the rock of Raouche suggest the couple belongs to Beirut’s new generation of haute bourgeoisie.
India’s work as an elementary school teacher keeps her grounded in mundane realities. Economically superfluous as it is, she wears her work as badge of honor, though the audience never witnesses any of her purported classroom wizardry. The story focuses rather on India and Malak’s sole challenge, their struggle to get pregnant.
Shuffling about near the bottom of Beirut society is Marwan (Alaa Hammoud), a little boy whose story is virtually absent from this country’s narrative repertoire, though it echoes through cities around the world.
Marwan is an elementary school student – possibly at India’s school, though he isn’t one of her students – where he has a scholarship. But his problems far outweigh the advantages of intelligence.
His young single mother is a nightmarish creature whose existence revolves around getting drunk in front of the television and shagging various men in exchange for daily rations of booze and hash. Rather than helping her boy succeed, she forces him to clean the house before class. For spare cash she routinely pimps him out to a pederast.
Arakji and Saba set their three basically sympathetic characters in motion with variously insurmountable obstacles facing them, giving their audience ample opportunity to squirm in discomfort along the way. Comedy is distinctly (and not inappropriately) absent from “Blind Intersections.”
Two narrative themes bind the three characters. One is education – Nour and Marwan are bright students, while India claims to be a devoted educator. The other is medical care, here embodied by Doctor Karim Shihab (Chadi Haddad).
A young resident doctor on the outpatients’ ward of some unnamed Beirut hospital, Shihab bears witness to the misfortunes the filmmakers rain down on the three principal characters. (“Bears witness” is the operative word, for woe betide anyone in desperate need of medical assistance who stumbles into Shihab’s care.)
Saba and Arakji fall far short of I??rritu and Arriaga, but “Blind Intersections” isn’t a bad film at all. The look of the thing, lensed by Michel Lagerwey, is subdued to the near-monochrome grey that audiences have come to associate with the social realist palette.
The soundtrack, by Lebanese experimental musician Raed al-Khazen, is dislocating yet sonorous – though it seems difficult to depict a female character’s emotional duress without hearing plaintive piano notes in the background.
The acting is competent and generally controlled enough to avoid toppling into soap opera-style scenery chewing. This is a credit to Saba and her cast, particularly Ghida Nouri – whose Nour must enact greater emotional tribulation than India, while her age forces her to be more expressive than the taciturn Marwan.
When it comes to the writing, the word “derivative” comes to mind. This isn’t necessarily unwelcome hereabouts, where efforts to capture the roiling social disparities beneath Beirut’s facades are rare and passionate filmmaking seldom complemented by equal levels of technical expertise. There are worse models to emulate than that of Arriaga’s brand of intelligent melodrama.
“Blind Intersections” will have a theatrical release later this year. The Beirut International Film Festival runs through Oct. 11 at Planete Abraj. For information call 01-292192 or see www.beirutfilmfoundation.org