BEIRUT: “Tramontane” (“Rabih”), the debut feature film of writer-director Vatche Boulghourjian, tells a story from contemporary Lebanon. As such, it treads a dangerous landscape. The film centers on Rabih (Barakat Jabbour), a young man from a Lebanese mountain village who’s been blind since infancy. A musical prodigy, Rabih is a multi-instrumentalist called upon to perform at local weddings, family luncheons and the like.
His talent – and that of several other members of the school for the blind where he works – has attracted the attention of some European festival or other, which has invited the musicians to come perform.
As the film opens, Rabih’s applying for his first passport.
The sturdy men of the surete-general immediately find something fishy about the young man’s identification card. They confiscate it, reassuring Rabih the matter should be easily sorted with a visit to the village mukhtar.
Wary of the villagewide scandal that will swirl up if anyone catches wind of the confiscation, his widowed mother Samar (Julia Kassar) advises him to just leave it to her bother Hisham (Toufic Barakat) – a well-connected party apparatchik.
Impatient, upright and confident he’s done nothing wrong, Rabih proceeds through proper channels, only to learn that there’s no record of his birth at the local hospital.
Samar confesses that she isn’t his birth mother at all. Late in the Civil War, she says, his uncle Hisham’s unit had been dispatched to defend a south Lebanon village called Kfar Laya. By the time he and his gunmen arrived, the destroyed village had been abandoned, but for a lone infant. Hisham had rescued the baby and brought it to his sister to raise as her own.
Shaken by his forged identity, the young man is driven – with the help of a village taxi driver – to investigate his real origins.
His journey south reveals Kfar Laya to be a quarry. The village sheikh informs Rabih that the village was not attacked in 1988 (the year of his birth) and was never destroyed.
“Why would anyone destroy Kfar Laya?” the sheikh says.
“There is nothing to destroy. The village has always just been a quarry with a few fig trees ... The land tells its own history. There are no ruins. There are no new structures.”
When even the true story of his origins proves fake, Rabih moves out of his mother’s house until he can find out who he really is. Samar, for her part, is doubly distraught. While, unbeknownst to herself, Rabih was traveling to Kfar Laya, Hisham too disappeared.
“Tramontane” provoked a lot of excitement in Lebanon last year when it was announced the film had been selected to premiere during Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique. Since then the film has had a respectable festival run – taking prizes at film festivals in Dubai and Pula, Croatia.
The film’s strongest single element is probably Boulghourjian’s script, mingling coming-of-age drama, detective story and road movie.
Premised on the universal theme of individual identity, the story finds a tortured location in Civil War-redolent contemporary Lebanon.
Lebanese citizens’ reputation for tribal loyalties, the bloody vendettas and human dislocations that have arisen from these, and the state’s historically laissez-faire attitude toward administrative niceties like record keeping – all might have been designed for the clash of small-town certainty and wartime contingency that this story explores.
The film is never more true than in the various tales its characters retail to narrate Rabih’s origins.
In its execution, the film is doggedly loyal to the perpetual want of (physical and metaphorical) clarity in the protagonist’s journey.
As Rabih and his cabbie drive down to the coast, then to south Lebanon, then on to the east side of the Lebanon range, the landscape bristles with striking locations.
Another filmmaker – one emulating the work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, say, or midcareer Kiarostami – would embrace these light-infused settings and litter the film with landscape-fetish money shots.
Instead, Boulghourjian and American cinematographer Jimmy Lee Phelan favor a darker, more claustrophobic palette.
The film’s establishing shot does capture a mountain landscape, but it’s grainy and shaky.
As the story develops, the protagonist is less likely to stride into the frame than to be followed by a steadicam as he navigates narrow hallways and village alleys.
More than a few of Rabih’s sequences are – or begin as – sparsely lit affairs, the most effective being those that capture Jabbour’s talent as a musician. Central to the plot, the musical abilities of the film’s lead are also compensatory. Jabbour is among several nonprofessional actors in Boulghourjian’s cast and – unlike his uncle (in life and in the film) Toufic Barakat – he lacks the unselfconscious in-frame ease of a “natural actor.”
Though the narrative and Rabih’s character are both marked by his independence and determination, this unease tends to elongate the shadows of sentimentality lingering at the edges of what is, at its core, a highly emotional story.
If the film manages to avoid being weighed down by emotions it conveys it is thanks, in no small part, to the film’s minimalist score, penned by artist and composer Cynthia Zaven.
Rabih’s musicianship – whether sung or played on violin or percussion – springs from a robust eastern classical tradition that is a mainstay of this region’s popular culture.
Growing out of the western tradition, Zaven’s original piano score echoes all the shorn fragility and furtiveness of her contemporary practice. When these two musics cohabit, as they do for a minute or two, they reference a conversation that reverberates well beyond the borders of this country.
“Tramontane” is screening in Beirut-area theaters.