Review: Flashback to Lebanon ‘1982,’ for an empathetic look at life with war on the horizon
In contemplative drama “1982,” writer-director Oualid Mouaness frames an escalating armed conflict, the First Lebanon War, with a prepubescent romance between a boy and a girl from opposites sides of Beirut. Divided across religious lines at the time, with Muslims on the west and Christians on the east, the entire city eventually came under fire.
East Beirut private school teacher Yasmine (Nadine Labaki), who has a personal stake in the matter as her brother has joined the fighting in the south of the country, keeps calm in front of her students while perturbed inside as the bombs get closer.
Knowing chaos started in the Muslim west, and soon reached across to affect those who thought it wasn’t their problem is vital to the story’s theme. But these historical details are absent in clear form — a problem a title card granting the viewers much-needed context could have solved.
Labaki, whose last film as a director, “Capernaum,” received an Oscar nomination in 2019, excels in a slow-burn performance teeming with restrained anxiety. Her increasingly worried demeanor contrasts with the nervous tenacity of fifth-grader Wissam (Mohamad Dalli), on a mission to establish affinity with his aloof love interest.
Their burgeoning relationship, that of Yasmine and her politically minded boyfriend, and Wissam’s brief schism with his best friend, reveal Mouaness’ intention to highlight the possibility of unity and mutual caring despite disagreements. Common humanity — and, in this story, national identity — should, hopefully, overpower other disputes.
The almost imperceptible score feels deliberately subdued — as do cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard’s often static wide shots bathed in bright sunlight — if perhaps excessively so. Given that the plot unfolds over a single day, and one in which students are taking final exams, the noise or banter of a regular classroom is also purposefully absent.
There’s no urgency in the audiovisual language, even as danger approaches. The child actors match such understated cinematic ambience with great lack of affectation. Only the magical realist touches tied to Wissam’s talent for drawing super robots add a small dash of wonder.
Although its contrived pacing, which isn’t exactly in real time but often drags, and anti-climactic structure diminish its prospects for engrossing tension, “1982” remains a worthwhile case for empathy. Imperfect as it is, this often-intuitive piece with a strong observational eye personifies the notion of the calm before the storm.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Available Jan. 19 via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres
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