Under the Bombs (2007) movie review

A simple story that gently rips your heart out

Just watched Under the Bombs for the first time, a 2007 Lebanese feature film directed by Philippe Aractingi and written by Aractingi and Michel Leviant. Nada Abu Farhat plays Zeina, a wealthy Lebanese Muslim mother of a young boy, Karim, from whom she has been separated during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah (started July 12, 2006 – ceasefire took effect August 14, 2006). Zeina is recently divorced from her globetrotting businessman husband, and their marital difficulties had led them to ask Zeina’s sister, Maha, to host their son for the summer while they attempted to work things out in their marriage. Unfortunately, Maha’s home was in the south of Lebanon, the region that was hardest hit by massive Israeli aerial bombing raids. Zeina flies into Beirut just after the ceasefire goes into effect, and desperately offers lots of cash to any taxicab driver who is willing to take her into the devastated and still dangerous south in search of her son and her sister.

Enter Tony (played by Georges Khabbaz), the only cabbie willing to take the chance. The movie turns into an “odd couple on the road” film, as Tony, a Lebanese Christian who knows the villages of the south like the back of his hand, becomes Zeina’s driver, cheerleader, detective, entertainer, confidant, and eventually, attempted romantic suitor. Although there are some lighthearted moments, the mission they are on to find Karim and Maha gets off to a grim start. Filmed amidst the actual ruins and rubble in the months immediately following the war, they drive from town to town, often having to backtrack due to blown out bridges, finally making it to the town where Maha lives. That’s when they learn that Maha didn’t make it – her body was found under the rubble of her home – she died “under the bombs,” as the local expression goes.

When Zeina hears from others in town that they think they saw her son alive and being taken away from the scene by a French journalist, the road trip turns into a detective mission. Cell phone coverage is very spotty due to war damage, and gasoline is hard to find.

Social and economic class and privilege are major themes in this film. Zeina is rich, beautiful, wears expensive clothes, and she can’t help herself from treating Tony like someone who is beneath her station even though she seems to want to try. Tony, on the other hand, is in many ways the epitome of the stereotype of the uneducated, uncouth, and untrustworthy working Arab meant to be a driver, gardener, repairman, or some such thing. He’s got a kind of goofy looking face (with shades of Mr. Bean actually). He talks too much, tries too hard to be funny, and makes no effort to conceal his physical attraction to Zeina, which she finds off-putting and a little threatening, but she is too determined to find her son to bail on Tony over his boorish moments.

As their journey unfolds through more rubble and more conversations with distracted and devastated survivors of the bombing, we get to learn more about Tony’s life. Tony has a brother who joined up with the SLA (the southern Lebanese Christian militia that allied itself with Israel during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war), and we find out that his brother and his family ended up being given residency in Israel after that war ended. Tony worries about his brother, thinks his decision to join the SLA was wrong, hates that he now lives in Israel, but also thinks of his brother’s decision at the time as having been one of youthful impulsiveness and naivete. He still loves his brother and wishes he could see him in person.

Tony himself has two kids, doesn’t seem to be married, and he makes ends meet in part by trying everything he can think of to upsell additional services to anyone wealthy he happens to pick up in his cab. He lurches from taxi fare to fare, side hustle to side hustle, and the war has only made that pattern more desperate and intense for him. He’s sketchy, yet sincere, and there’s a lot of sorrow and anxiety lurking behind his silly smiles and repeated efforts to get through Zeina’s controlled emotional armor and find a way to make her crack a smile. As their journey progresses, Zeina increasingly comes to see him as her fully human equal. The more she is humbled by the horrors surrounding her, the more humility she develops in general, including in her attitude towards Tony.

I don’t want to say much more about this film and definitely don’t want to give away any spoilers. I’ll just add this much. The movie presents the war from the perspective of two Lebanese Arabs who are very different from each other — they have different religions, different access to the outside world, and vastly different relationships to money and wealth. The movie is very hard on Israel, though it doesn’t refrain from a dig or two against Hezbollah, and its moral center rejects extremism and laments the longstanding dysfunctional inter-group violence that has plagued modern Lebanon for a long time. Ultimately, though, this is a movie in which the primary author of the violence and the terrorizing devastation being faced by the Lebanese people we encounter throughout is Israel. The movie makes a point of Israel’s use of cluster bombs during the war, including the unexploded ordinance that these hideous weapons leave behind, which easily claim the lives of kids and others who happen upon them. (Note: Hezbollah also used cluster bombs in its rocket attacks on Israeli civilian centers during this war, and human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch condemned both Israel and Hezbollah for their actions involving these munitions.) But this movie is focused on the absolute re-devastation of southern Lebanon, and one of its themes is the way in which people will move heaven and earth to try to find or save their child, and how that kind of fierce love and attachment supersedes everything else.

I remember working as a congregational rabbi during the 2006 Lebanon War, as the Jewish community tends to refer to it. I was, at time time, angry at the devastating use of overwhelming force by the Israelis, and especially by their use of cluster bombs. It seemed obvious that they were choosing not just to hammer Hezbollah in retaliation for their cross-border attacks, but that they wanted the retaliation to devastate civilian communities as well (to “teach the local folks a lesson – that’s what you get if you allow Hezbollah to take over the south of the country?”). If that was the goal, it backfired. Seems that even people who hated being dominated by Hezbollah, their unelected rulers, were even more inclined to hate the Israelis for bombing them all back into the stone age. Anyway, at the time I was also angry at what Hezbollah was doing – launching cross-border attacks that started the war, firing hundreds of rockets at Israeli civilians, using cluster bombs, and intentionally raising fears among Israelis that at some point their rockets might deliver chemical or biological weapons (those weapons were being developed by Assad in neighboring Syria and Hezbollah was allied with Assad and Iran). Although Hezbollah couldn’t inflict anywhere near the damage and rain of bombs that Israel could — the difference between having an air force and not having one — they were also playing a cynical game, kicking the hornets’ nest and willing to risk making martyrs out of thousands of civilians because it suited their ideological and strategic goals. The film takes a couple brief shots at Hezbollah in this regard.

What I think I’ll take away from this movie for a long time is the powerful performances of the two lead characters, and the cinematography, which was nothing short of a close encounter with the hellscape aftermath of rubble, death, disease, loss, and ruin that was wrought by the Israeli air force over the course of the month-long war. The geopolitics that form the backdrop and evolving news headlines of this movie involve not just Israel, Hezbollah, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria, but also France (Lebanon’s previous colonizer and ongoing patronizer in all senses of that word), the UN, and the Western powers, China, and the rich Gulf States. All of those political, military, religious, and economic forces swirl but fall away in the immediacy of the mother-child bond, in the case of Zeina, and the struggle to survive an unforgiving reality with little more than one’s wits and an old taxicab in the case of Tony.

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