The palm-sized absurdist Lebanese film “The Kite” (2003) was never released to U.S. theaters, and it’s a piteous sign of the times — even a decade ago, such a deft and humane film, bearing an armload of festival awards, would’ve hit screens in at least a few cities, and appeared on critics’ top ten lists, and therein manage a footprint on American film culture consciousness. Perhaps the alt-distribution stream of DVD will suffice, in general; as it is, Randa Chahal Sabbag’s film deserves eyeballs, trafficking in the satiric-fable tradition of “West Beirut” (1998) and “In the Battlefields” (2004) that might stand as a particularly Lebanese idiom. For a country as savaged and riven by warfare, occupation, religious vendettas and geographic tumult, the sense of embracing humor in all three films must be hard won — the DNA of it shares genes with Jiří Menzel’s Czech élan and Kusturica’s Serbian hyperbole, but there’s also a subtle native sense of romance and rock ‘n’ roll.
“The Kite” is all about the ambiguous borderlands — the film is set in a Druze village split more or less down its mountainous middle by the ever-shifting Israeli occupation, so that marriages must be arranged and family arguments hashed out via megaphone and binoculars across an expanse of guarded desert valley. It’s a tragically comic set-up, politically genuine but simultaneously ridiculous, and it never gets old, especially since it’s enacted for the most part by middle-aged women in fluttering black abayas, broadcasting recriminations and, at one point, attesting to a new groom’s masculinity by hollering that when he was seven, “he mounted a goat!”, such was his erection.
The assigned bride in these negotiations is Lamia (the dewily gorgeous Flavia Béchara), a vaguely rebellious girl who has no compunctions about crossing a minefield to fetch a fallen kite, and who, it turns out, is actually in love with the local lad shanghaied into the Israeli forces to monitor the town from a watchtower. Boosted by rather spectacular widescreen photography (both D.P.s are French), Chahal Sabbag’s tone is gentle and generous (except with a single, astonishingly tasteless scene involving the discovery of an aborted fetus); she considers the points of view of virtually everybody on the ground, even the Israeli officers, who know their role is idiotic (transcribing the bellowed border conversations, partitioning different chunks of the village at night with barbed wire and thereby spontaneously separating family members). And then comes a climactic, transporting, magical realist flourish the filmmaker, who sadly died of cancer last August, had not prepared us for. Defiance and love, knotted together, it turns out, is the only way to face oppression.
You never know what you’ll find… as in, amid the usual screaming-slickness-digi-gore foofaraw that makes up Lionsgate’s multiple “8 Films to Die for” and “Ghost House Underground” series (signaling you with titles like “Autopsy” and “Slaughter”), Sean Ellis’ “The Broken” is a metaphysical whatzit that looks and sounds like a horror movie but may actually be something else — a body-snatcher parable on urban alienation? The film possesses that annoyingly gorgeous-cool cinematography so common to its type (and which is soothing, not anxiety-producing), and it indulges in moments of blood-soaked hooey. But it’s the upshot that’s subtly different — so note, here there be spoilers.
Suffice it to say that gorgeous London radiologist Lena Headey may be a victim of Capras syndrome (where you believe the people around you are doubles) as the result of a car accident, except that we know she saw herself driving by beforehand, only, if there are two of her, who’s the double? Exhausted ambassador dad Richard Jenkins, French boyfriend Melvil Poupaud and concerned shrink Ulrich Thomsen don’t know what to make of her dilemma, but they could be haunted/stalked by doubles, too. Where the doubles come from and why are not plot points (thank God) but dangling questions so mysterious that the film begs to be read metaphorically, as a physically articulated existential crisis. In fact, the film does work up a kind of Sartrean nausea — that is, if you can get past the grue-spattered bathtubs and constantly telegraphed menace.
[Additional photo: Melvil Poupaud and Lena Headey in “The Broken,” After Dark Films, 2009]