Movie News & Reviews

'Caramel' offers taste of Beirut

"Caramel": Three stars

Doesn't matter if it's Boston or Beirut; some things are simply universal.

For a group of city women working together at a downtown beauty salon in "Caramel," the talk routinely centers on men, bodies, hairdos, slights -- perceived or otherwise -- love and family. It's typical Main Street Americana stuff; except this is Lebanon where armed soldiers patrol the streets, questioning anyone who happens to linger a bit too long.

The caramel in the title refers to a homemade concoction, heated and used (like wax) as a depilatory. It is also the somewhat opaque color scheme in the background for most scenes, giving a warm, inviting glow to an exotic land essentially foreign to most Americans.

In her powerful, yet understated directorial debut, Nadine Labaki plays the pivotal role of salon owner Layale -- a modern woman torn between tradition and venturing beyond her tightly knit circle. It is to Labaki's credit that the salon staff, as well as the patrons, are so endearing and annoyingly familiar to us -- no stereotypes, just normal women -- no ethnic differences beyond, perhaps, some gorgeous outfits and exquisite makeup. Each has her own easily recognizable challenges, foibles and dreams.

Layale and Rabih enjoy a modern, intense relationship: He loves her, she loves him. He just happens to have a wife and child as well. Layale is also courted by a police officer (a dashing Adel Karam), who regularly visits the shop to flirt with her.

At once unnerving and tragicomic is the touching Gisele Aouad as Jamale, a nearly over-the-hill struggling actress, regularly reminded of her age by the swarm of young beauties who turn up at every audition.

As Nisrine, Yasmine Al Masri marvelously combines outwardly cool and internally terrified. She is engaged to Bassam, only he's not her first lover -- a big problem in the Muslim world.

And every family has their Lili (a scene-stealing Aziza Semaan): the stubborn, crazy old aunt, who can and will say anything. She is lovingly looked after by her sister Rose (Sihame Haddad), who makes all manner of small sacrifices to do so.

Rima, a delightfully sensible yet frustrated Joanna Moukarzel, is attracted to one of her customers -- a woman; again, big problem in this extremely conservative culture. A sensual scalp massage is as close as they come to actual contact.

Showing how modern times coexist with ancient ways, there's frequent, clandestine cell phone conversations intercut with scenes showing the difficulty securing a hotel room for an unmarried couple. Waiting to hear from her lover, a frustrated and remorseful Layale chides herself: "And I'm still lying to myself, thinking he's going to leave her." Such wide-eyed, baseless optimism crosses all cultural lines.

The leisurely paced unfurling of each personal glimpse reverberates with both intimacy and a sense of the forbidden. Each of these characters desperately longs for more, but is stymied by the reality of their limited lives and sustained by the camaraderie. They smile, get their toes done, and persevere.

Astonishingly self-assured, Labaki never goes for the easy laugh or the obvious tragedy. Each and every scene is crafted such that it appears heart wrenchingly real; ordinary women just trying to get by. This is the everyday side of Beirut: a series of unrequited desires, pet goldfish, girlish gossip and lots of letdowns.

As Nisrine's mother advises, when she likens life to a melon: "You must cut it open to see if it's good."