Culture

Like feeding an old carpet to goats

BEIRUT: “Are You Glad I’m Here” opens midplot, with one of those “uh-oh” moments that drive cinema.

The camera gazes down upon an Army checkpoint on a rural road as a white pickup truck pulls up.The driver steps out to chat with the soldiers, and his four passengers (two men, two women) assume various poses of discomfort as the officer in charge says he wants to inspect the cargo. The concerned-looking driver leans into the cab to say, “We have to untie the carpet.”

The information provokes a flashback to eight months earlier, in Beirut. There, a young American named Kirstin’s walking down a busy street, chatting with her mother on the phone. Kirstin (Tess Harrison) has been in town for a couple of weeks and radiates that shininess common to traveling Anglophones who help staff the informal economy of English-language classes.

This premise is common as dirt in expat-in-the-global-south pictures (so is jumping to flashback after beginning in medias res) but neither Lebanese-American director Noor Gharzeddine, nor scriptwriter Samuel Cyrenius Anderson seem interested in rehearsing tired narrative tropes.

That may be why, when they have Kirstin stop in a shop to get a few things, she randomly tucks a chocolate bar into her pocket. Audience members watching Gharzeddine’s feature film debut, now up at Metropolis cinema, will find other plot expectations overturned as well.

When the camera’s not following Kirstin’s shopping, it’s looking in on the flat across the hall from hers.

There, Nadine (Marwa Khalil) is doing the household chores, accompanied by the bleeps and squeaks of gaming arising from the mobile phones of her boy Rami and his pal.

She drives the boys out just in time for them to knock Kirstin’s shopping out of her arms, allowing the two women to meet.

Nadine invites her neighbor for coffee. Kirstin snoops a bit, and Nadine confides that she’s a village girl from the mountains who moved to Beirut so her husband could be close to his pharmacy. The conversation is friendly and littered with misunderstandings, as Nadine doesn’t understand her guest’s English. It ends abruptly, when Kirstin notices the bruises on her host’s arms.

The women become pals with visits to Raouche rock, tabbouleh lessons and Kirstin volunteering to babysit Rami so Nadine and her husband Pierre can have a date night at home. When she meets Pierre (Najeeb Zeitouni), he turns out to be a slimy worm of a pharmacist who cheats on Nadine relentlessly.

“Divorce here isn’t like in America,” she replies after Kirstin encourages her to leave him.

Pierre’s not a complete monster - he’s pointedly shown bonding with Rami over a football match once - but he’s increasingly on the booze, which makes him more likely to batter his wife. It’s while indulging in that behavior one evening that Pierre is dealt an unexpected blow as Kirstin looks on, and the complexion of the second half of the film abruptly changes.

Nadine calls her brother Amin (Nadim Deaibes) in the village, says she needs a favor and asks him to come down to Beirut. A (basically comic) sequence introduces several new characters and presages a location change as Nadine and Kirstin accompany Amin, his pals and his mom’s carpet back up the mountain.

Fierce tonal changes like this are generally frowned upon, though a few auteur filmmakers sometimes bring it off. Gharzeddine and Anderson manage to make it work here and for many audiences the payoff may be worth it.

“Are You Glad” has some commendable qualities. Harrison and Khalil complement one another well and the cast members bused in for the second half form an effective comic ensemble without lowering the film to television. Urban and rural locations are photogenic without being cliche and cinematographer Ziad Chahoud captures them well.

There are several shortcomings that remind you that this is Gharzeddine’s first feature, however. Pierre’s end is telegraphed virtually as soon as he’s introduced.

When young Rami is made to undergo a flashback-within-a flashback (a montage of his mom and dad’s arguing) the lens appears to have been smeared with Vaseline - the sort of thing self-aware Hollywood comedies started mocking in the 20th century. There are also some technical issues with the film’s pivotal domestic violence scene.

Not perfection, then, but an entertaining start.

“Are You Glad I’m Here” is screening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 30, 2019, on page 12.

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