Review: The sweet unveiling of ‘Caramel’

Nadine Labaki: perhaps not a familiar name, not yet. You are certain to hear more of her, well beyond this report about her first film, “Caramel.”

The young Lebanese beauty is not only the star of this heartwarming and unusual movie, but also its director and co-writer.

Unusual? It sure is, a contemporary film taking place in Beirut without any reference to the wars tearing the city apart for decades now. (There is a parallel here with another excellent film making its U.S. appearance, “The Band’s Visit,” of an Egyptian-Israeli encounter set deliberately outside the political context.)

Unusual? Amazingly so when you realize, having witnessed an extraordinary ensemble performance, that all but two of the cast members have no acting experience.It’s all great acting by non-actors, and you wouldn’t know it without a press release.

“Sex in the City” with brains, realism, and without affectation, “Caramel” tells the story of five women in a Beirut beauty salon, their lives and dreams. The tone is simple, intimate, the characters are different from each other, but all likable and real. “Caramel” is a movie to enjoy; beyond its vitality and good humor, it offers the viewer the acquaintance of everyday, believable people you can care about.

The title refers to the pliant caramelized sugar used for hair removal, material that can be used for good (removing hair) or ill (inflicting pain on a lover’s wife, who ends up in the wrong salon). It is something “sweet and salt, sugary and sour, of the delicious sugar that can burn and hurt you,” Labaki has said.

The director — whose theme and work are reminiscent of Pedro Almodovar’s early films — is Layale, the owner of the salon, a woman in her early 30s, who “should be married” by now, but instead, she carries on a passionate (for her) affair with a married policeman. Layale is Christian, her best friend working in the salon, Nisrine, is a Moslem woman of 28, about to get married, but she is facing a daunting obstacle. The role is played memorably by one of the film’s many amateur actors, Yasmine Al Masri.

Also in the salon, Rima, a 24-year-old tomboy (played by Joanna Moukarzel, in real life “business manager with an electrical appliance company”!), who is quietly struggling with her growing interest in women. It is one of the many glories of “Caramel” how her friends literally look the other way when Rima – very much in love – cuts the hair of a beautiful stranger (Siham Fatmeh Safa, who should be a model and an actress, but is neither).

Among the many fascinating characters: Jamale, a customer who virtually lives in the salon, a woman in denial of and battling her age; Lili, a crazy aunt, who collects parking tickets from windshields; and the men in the cast — relegated to supporting roles, but not belittled or presented in a hostile manner. It’s not so much a “women’s picture” as a film for and about people. With splendid cinematography by Yves Sehnaoui, and appealing music by Khaled Mouzanar, “Caramel” completed production work in 2006, one week before the most recent bombing of Beirut began.

CREDITS

Carmel

Starring Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Elmasri, Joanna Moukarzel

Written by Rodney El Haddad, Jihad Hojeily, Nadine Labaki

Directed by Nadine Labaki

Rated PG

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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