Jennifer Fox's densely detailed documentary "Beirut: The Last Home Movie" (playing today through Sunday at the Nuart) is a family saga with a cataclysm as background.
The movie gives us the current Lebanese war observed at an off-angle: through a tinted glass, a latticework of trees, the dark remnants of a ruined garden, the blazing lights of a brilliant party. Outside, there's death, gunfire--but we barely hear it. The music wells up, the hubbub and chatter drown it out. But only temporarily.
The walls of a beleaguered mansion--belonging to the three Bustros sisters, members of the Beirut aristocracy--act as fragile mask for the horror all around. Their 200-year-old house--located in the Orthodox Christian Ashrafiya area, 1,200 yards from the Muslim border--is a landmark under siege, seemingly entering its last, bullet-riddled act. Within the surrounding gloom, it's like a flaring match in a howling darkness.
Fox shot most of her footage in 1981, while barely out of New York University film school--and she takes a seemingly simple approach that becomes complex and many-layered.
She and her talented editor-co-writer John Mullen and brilliant cinematographer, Alex Nepomniaschy, focus on everything in the Bustros house, every tiny detail of decor and architecture, while allowing the three sisters in their 30s--the embittered and restless Gaby, and her calmer, more settled elders, Mouna and Nyla--to tell the family story. They are aided by the matriarch, Mimi, and her 25-year-old brother, Fady. His marriage and wedding reception, held in the midst of hostilities, provides the film's ironic climax.
The family chatters on at length (it's a 2-hour film) about matters seemingly irrelevant to any outsider: the once-shared husband of sisters Mouna and Nyla, their dead father's intimidating personality. No fragment of Bustros lore seems alien to film maker Fox. And though some audiences will become impatient, what gradually emerges from this mountain of detail is the curious resistance of families to change--and also the unshakable props (chains?) of class and background, the tyranny of time and memory.
We notice how easily this family--raised in wealth and privilege--can evade the outside world. If, at this moment, they can ignore rifle fire and bombs, can have the servants haul out the rugs and wax and polish the ruined mansion for a party--how relatively simple it must have been to resist all the premonitions of chaos.
Oddly, where the Bustroses might have seemed snobbish and annoying in a more peaceful time, the bloodshed surrounding their rituals makes them poignant. In a way, they are preparing their memorial, sealing up their lives in a time capsule--preserving a quality of life, which, however foolish, is perhaps about to disappear. They become bearers of tradition, even a warped tradition, and their love for the old house, their refusal to leave it, becomes an insanely affecting passion--since it is, by now, almost literally, a love unto death.
In sharing their passion, director Fox runs the risk of alienating the audience. Where is the war? Where is the city? Where is life? The answer: just over the walls, pressing in more and more at every minute. Life, held at bay by the aristocracy's glittering self-absorption, swarms at these gates like a pack of wolves. And, inside, the fire leaps up in a last intense, almost wistful flare before the wind that will extinguish it.