‘Costa Brava, Lebanon’ Review: Masterful Family Drama Exhumes Beirut’s Lost Dreams

Nadine Labaki stars in Mounia Akl's superb feature debut about a Lebanese family whose utopian homestead is ruined by a government landfill.
Costa Brava Lebanon
"Costa Brava, Lebanon"
Kino Lorber

The dystopian future, once a favored subject of science fiction, is quickly becoming the present. To use the devastatingly apt metaphor guiding Mounia Akl’s brilliant first feature “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” it’s dropping its shit on our doorstep. Visually ripe and darkly funny, “Costa Brava, Lebanon” strikes an expert balance between telling a good story while also grappling with the most pressing issues facing humanity. Energized by a charming ensemble of intimately compelling characters, its sharply focused metaphor never strays too far from the human element. Working with powerhouse performances from Oscar-nominated Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki and Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, Mounia Akl comes out swinging as the next big thing in Middle Eastern cinema.

The film tells the story of the Badri family, who live on a lush self-sufficient homestead on the outskirts of Beirut. Opening with a pointedly vague title card — “Lebanon, in a near future” — a newscast informs us that Beirut is in the midst of a waste crisis. It’s been happening since 2015, with ongoing protests over corruption and government inefficiency filling the city’s streets daily. On the Badri family compound, however, life is beautifully simple.

Still sweet with each other, Souraya (Labaki) and Walid (Bakri) spend their days gardening, mending fences, feeding chickens, and cooking over an open flame. They live with their two daughters; rambunctious little Rim (Ceana and Geana Restom), who worships her father and the home they’ve built, and 17-year-old Tala (Nadia Charbel), whose nascent sexuality makes her curious about the world her family left behind. Walid’s stubborn mother Zeina (Liliane Chacar Knoury) lives next door, toting her oxygen machine while bribing the neighbor for cigarettes.

When Rim spies a group of uniformed men marching the surrounding property, the family is incensed to learn that Walid’s sister has sold her adjoining plot of land to the government without consulting them. One of the last green areas in the country will now be used for a landfill, which its engineer Tarek (Francois Nour) assures the family will be a sustainable facility. Though skeptical of these empty promises, Walid holds out hope that the project is merely a government endeavor that will never come to fruition.  As the bulldozers and excavators pummel the land, the Badri family must observe the everyday destruction, bearing witness to the literal shit that will slowly eat away at their little piece of paradise.

Costa Brava Lebanon
“Costa Brava, Lebanon”Kino Lorber

The once harmonious family begins to fight, the strain of the situation testing their affection and stratifying their ideological differences. As the architect of the dream home, Walid is determined to stay, fearing that fleeing will set a bad example for his girls. Meanwhile, Souraya, once a famous singer in Beirut, misses her old life and suggests returning to the city. “They’ll find new ways to kill us,” Walid admonishes her. “Beirut will never change.”

Coming into herself, Tala is transfixed by the handsome young Tarek, staring through the cracks in the burlap privacy fence her father has erected. Home-schooled and isolated from the outside world, she innocently kisses the edge of the family pool, a classic children’s pastime she’s a bit too old for. Both kids exhibit behaviors that a little socializing would help; Rim counts obsessively, imbuing the number 44 with magical properties. Thinking her son extreme, Grandma Zeina encourages Tala’s curiosity, telling her stories of her youthful romances and sneaking her a cell phone.

In her director’s note, Akl explains how the family mirrors Lebanese society. “The Badri family’s ideal of staying pure by disdaining society is an escapist fantasy.” Today in Lebanon, she writes, “People reinvent and sterilize their homes to protect themselves from a dystopian reality that is too painful to face. It has also armed us with limitless imagination, humor and a visceral experience of life.”

Akl externalizes this feeling as the garbage piles up outside their door, puncturing the Badris’ escapist fantasy with every bag. In a haunting visual representation, blood eventually seeps into the pool filter, staining the family oasis as crimson water flows from the sink. The roiling sacks of garbage take on a menacing persona, churning and chewing like a toxic monster. One morning, Tala observes a massive fire as the garbage burns black smoke into the sky, before a massive boom nearly engulfs her. The pandemic and the horrific Beirut explosion of 2020 are never far from sight.

But amid the devastation, the Badri family somehow manages to dance, sing, and play. In the dry pantry, Walid wears a necklace of dried vegetables to play-fight with the girls. When Souraya picks up her guitar for the first time, the trees begin to roll slowly past her window, as if a train is transporting her to a joyous concert. Tala dresses up in her grandmother’s beaded green evening gown and feels a rush of womanly confidence.

No longer able to keep the toxicity at bay, the family begins to collapse. “You should decide whether you love or hate this country,” Souraya snaps at Walid, frustrated with his stubborn insistence on staying in a place that will surely eat them alive. This sentiment, more than anything, sums up the film’s wrenching tension. “Costa Brava, Lebanon” may be a fantasy memory of Lebanon’s past, but it’s alive and well in the hearts of its people.

Grade: A-

“Costa Brava, Lebanon” is now in select theaters from Kino Lorber.

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