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April 08, 2008

Despite its politics and its propaganda, Under The Bombs is a great movie, says Richard D. North: Under the Bombs - Philippe Aractingi

Posted by Richard D. North

Under the Bombs (Sous Les Bombes)
Directed by Philippe Aractingi
certificate 15, 2007

A handsome woman - stacked, and a definite dame, but a lady too - arrives in Beirut a few days after the arrival of a lot of Israeli bombs in 2006. Zeina's in trouble but snooty and meets a scuzzy taxi driver who offers to help, for a fee. The fee starts high, and increases. But Tony turns out to have a heart of gold, and pluck, and so does she. Do they get it on? Probably not, but it becomes an interesting question.

I went to Under The Bombs because it's important to go to wrist-slitter movies when you're on your own and within reach of the Renoir in the Brunswick Centre. I didn't expect that the director would know how to make us laugh. Even less did I know that he'd also turn out a movie which can't be put in the "quirky" or "charming" boxes. This is a great film, with themes and emotions on a grand scale.

The opening scenes are a shaker for someone who only sees real wars on television and sees mostly Hollywood wars in the cinema. Here, the camera makes one observe the bombs as though one were right there, almost living its position a few miles away. Across the shimmering valley there's a puff of smoke and a house disappears. As the plume starts seriously to billow, there is an awesome series of thumps - as the sound waves and the Dolby sound system catch up with the light. When I say the effect is at least as shattering as are the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan (1998), but achieved with much more economy, you'll get the impact of the thing.

It takes a moment or two to realise why this film looks so amazing. It's because it is not just set in the days after a serious bombardment, it was filmed on location in those moments too. Apart from actors Nada Abou Farhat as Zeina and Georges Khabbaz as Tony (both wholly authentic and involving), everyone else is a real person.

In these circumstances, most of the pick-up performances from soldiers, farmers, children, priests, journalists, aid workers and grieving mothers are an extraordinary achievement. As we see coffins dug up for relocation, we have to assume that this is real blood pouring out of a corner and real stench which has everyone holding a scarf in front of their nose.

The woman, a less than modest Shi'ite living in Dubai, has made the mistake of sending her six year old son to her sister in southern Lebanon. She thought she was sending him away from the fallout of a breaking marriage. Actually, she was sending him to a village which would be thumped very hard. We meet all sorts of people in this film, but we never meet an Israeli. That country - its military, people and politicians are just the feared enemy "other" who wreak destruction at will if not whim.

I doubt it matters whether this is a fair account of Israel and its works. (It certainly is not.) We see a momentarily lingering shot of a sign which reads something like: "Israel bombs your homes; Hizbullah rebuilds your hearts". What matters is that this seems to be an authentic account of a war as it is experienced by the people we meet. And how we want to meet them.

Westerners of a certain age often have the impression that the Lebanon is a wonderful place, and beautiful with it, and that the Lebanese are interesting and civilised. This film only reinforces that idea. It may well be a propaganda movie. It may have been made to achieve some sort of political or diplomatic effect. It may reinforce the widespread perception that Israel has lost the sense of what a proportional or expedient response to terrorism might be. Again, I can't say I altogether agree with that prejudice. More important, in the case of this movie, I don't think it matters. The film tells a story which is well worth telling.

For one thing, as we go south we meet Christian Lebanese who say they have experienced an even-handed nastiness from both Jew and Muslim. The driver's brother is reviled by Hizbullah for his insufficient loyalty, and now lives in Israel.
I am in no position to judge these tensions, and merely note them here to indicate that this movie is at the very least not wholly unsubtle in its messages.

Anyway, back to the story. This is a road movie. The 1975 Merc cab heads south, and the way is circuitous since roads keep disappearing in a tear of twisted steel and concrete. The pair begin to believe the boy is alive though Zeina's sister has died. They then get evidence that he may be in the care of a monastery. The matter-of-fact compassion they meet along the way seems very like life. People have compiled lists of the dead and missing and the safe: bureaucratic fingers scan them for the nth time. The people who can't help, say so with at least a moment's regret.

But that wouldn't warm us to the movie, not really. What does the trick is the scatter of comic, sexual, and romantic moments. Detaching himself from their mission, the driver goes off and starts up a conversation with a UN official as he supervises the unloading of a landing craft. The conversation goes something like:

"You in charge, brother?"


"Medical supplies?"


"Sell me some?"


"Thought you were in charge."

"I am. Of getting them to the needy."

"I'm needy. I've got a suffering family."

"What medicine do they need?"

"Oh, anything'll do, mate. A couple of boxes of anything."

"Sorry. Can't help you."

End of scene.

Later, we find out what happened next.

There are tragicomic moments as the cabbie's interest in his fare escalates from generalised low-rent blokiness to something far more interesting. Indeed, the story is in large part about what happens to him as he lets his own middle-rank sadness sneak out and play in the space made by Zeina's horrors and fears.

And as these human themes unfold, we are held in great suspense. Anything may happen at any time. Stuff certainly does. Suffice to say this film doesn't bother with a feel-good ending. But it is very feel-good at moments along the way. A masterpiece, and no mis-steps.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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