TIFF 2021: ‘Costa Brava, Lebanon’ Is a Wonderful and Smart Study of Hope

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Costa Brava, Lebanon

A political allegory, an existential exploration of attachment to home, a reflection on environmental anxiety, and a touching family portrait are the offerings of Mounia Akl’s wonderful film Costa Brava, Lebanon

The story is set in near-future Lebanon, specifically on one of the few green spots remaining of a country asphyxiated by pollution. Walid Badri (Saleh Bakri), his wife Souraya (Nadine Labaki), his mother Zeina (Liliane Chacar Khoury), and his daughters Tala (Nadia Charbel) and Reem (Ceana and Geana Restom) have been living peacefully in a countryside house for over eight years. It’s a little paradise with chickens, vegetables, and a pool. But the abrupt arrival of a giant statue of the president changes everything. The government has expropriated a piece of land below their house, and they intend to use it as a landfill to solve the garbage problem in Beirut. “It’s all by the books this time,” claims Tarek (François Nour), an environmental engineer. But we are talking about politicians here (in election season, no less), so the operation will definitely not be eco-friendly.

The government literally dumps garbage in their front doors and into their personal lives, sending everything into emotional disarray. Instead of renouncing their home, the Badri family stays and uses passive resistance to fight. But as their water gets polluted and thousands of garbage bags start to invade their home, an internal conflict arises. Should they try legal channels to stop them? Should they leave? They could go to Colombia, where Walid’s sister Alia lives. The family’s past hampers the other viable option, which is returning to Beirut. 

Walid and Souraya are former activists whose dreams of change were worn out many years ago by a country that made them believe their efforts were useless. Both have different responses to the immediate problem at hand. Souraya was a famous singer who used her voice to protest; now, she feels nostalgic toward Beirut and is starting to long for singing and protesting in the streets again. Silence is slowly tearing her apart. On the other hand, Walid can’t envision Beirut as anything other than a failure created by a useless government; the simple thought of the city seems to bring back bad memories of disappointment. His dreams died there; how can he return? Also, leaving for Colombia would mean giving up again. A sentiment of stubbornness arises as Walid refuses to see his life and beliefs crushed once again by the State. Naturally, the contrasting ideas of this couple crash fiercely as the crisis gets worse. One wants to go out and fight a real fight, while the other prefers to stay and fight a losing battle. Along the way, their fears and desires are depicted by Akl through two beautiful yet vastly different surreal scenes.

The rest of the family is equally interesting. Having grown in this house, 9-year-old Reem has a free soul, an activist heart, and a cheeky attitude; she’s her father through and through and struggles with any idea that falls outside hers or Walid’s beliefs. Twins Ceana and Geana Restom bring this character to life with tremendous charisma and comedic timing. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Tala is going through a sexual awakening. The countryside isolation is not doing her any favors; interaction with a hot Tarek, regardless of his help creating the landfill hell, generates feelings of desire and lust.

Grandma Zeina offers a whole different outlook on the situation. She befriends the landfill workers, buys a smartphone for Tala, mentions her desire to go to Colombia, and smokes cigarettes despite having to use oxygen constantly. She’s enjoying life and is subtly opposing her son’s radical ideas of activism. Although she somewhat embodies the indifferent attitude some older people have regarding the environmental crisis, her message shines brighter as the family gets torn apart by Walid’s stubbornness. What’s the point of protecting the future if you are not living in the present? By holding so fiercely unto something, Walid is hurting the ones he loves most, both physically and emotionally.

Costa Brava, Lebanon carries the weight of the country’s garbage crisis in 2015 and the traumatic Beirut Port blast of 2020. Still, Mounia Akl doesn’t let her political and environmental critiques overshadow the atmosphere of intimacy. The film is firmly focused on the relationships between family members; the characters are complex and constantly evolving. The excellent performances create authentic and engaging interactions that will make you fall in love with this family and keep you wondering what will happen with every single one of them after the credits start rolling.

With a bright, cozy, and sometimes funny script, co-written by Akl and Clara Roquet, Costa Brava, Lebanon, lays out difficult questions about nationalism and activism in times of unrest. It ponders on the consequences of leaving your homeland and how the love for your country can manifest. And throughout it all, Mounia Akl highlights hope as the catalyst for change. Without it, where can you go?

Costa Brava, Lebanon, screened as part of the Contemporary World Cinema program at TIFF 2021.

Costa Brava, Lebanon
  • 8.5/10
    Rating - 8.5/10
8.5/10

TL;DR

With a bright, cozy, and sometimes funny script, co-written by Akl and Clara Roquet, Costa Brava, Lebanon, lays out difficult questions about nationalism and activism in times of unrest. It ponders on the consequences of leaving your homeland and how the love for your country can manifest. And throughout it all, Mounia Akl highlights hope as the catalyst for change. Without it, where can you go?