Heaven Without People

Who has never experienced a heated discussion in those hypocritical family gatherings that tend to sour festive occasions? Lebanese writer/director/producer/editor Lucien Bourjeily imagines one of these scenarios in his feature debut Heaven Without People. He puts together a solid cast ensemble composed of unknown and amateur actors for this farcical representation of the Lebanese reality.

Despite struggling with inconsistencies in mood and an erratic pace, the film fires up some curious observations about the alienated state of the country, without ever reaching high levels of socio-political controversy.

Serge (Nadim Abou Samra) arrives late at his parents’ house, which was left without electricity for two days, for the long-awaited Easter celebration. He takes a new girlfriend with him: Leila (Laeticia Semaan), a Shiite who had to move to the Southern suburbs due to war. Seated at the table are Serge’s goodhearted mother, Joujou (Samira Sarkis), and self-satisfied father, Antoine (Wissam Boutros); his tense sister Rita (Farah Shaer) and her husband Rabih (Ghassan Chemali); his other sister: the submissive Christine (Nancy Karam) and her passive-aggressive husband, Elias (Jean Paul Hage); as well as his controlling aunt Noah (Jenny Gebara) and her teenage son, Sami (Toni Habib), a troublemaker.

“…a heated discussion in those hypocritical family gatherings that tend to sour festive occasions…”

The handheld camera keeps moving around the table at a medium distance, and the tedious introduction of the characters is done slowly and coupled with the vapid conversation, whose topics vary from religion – with incidence on the extremism among Catholics – to corrupt politics to personal observations about some demeanors of the present. It takes a while to contextualize everyone within the family, but once done, the story flows in a more effective manner.

Hypocrisy at lunch comes to an end when the matriarch finds that 12 grand, the equivalent to a one-year salary paid to her husband in advance as a bribe, is missing from her purse. Predictably, the modest Ethiopian maid, Zoufan (Etafar Aweke), who works in the house for several years and earns only $200, is the one to be blamed.

“…change the course of events from casual passivity to precipitous chaos in a couple of minutes.”

Racism, corruption, preconception, insincerity, violence, and resentment, are all predicaments this family has to deal with. Bourjeily, who gained a reputation as a theater director, chews things up for more than an hour, only to change the course of events from casual passivity to precipitous chaos in a couple of minutes. Can a brilliant ending save a film? Sure, but I strongly feel this one could have given much more if handled with a little more subtlety.

Heaven Without People (2018)Directed by Lucien Bourjeily. Written by Lucien Bourjeily. Starring Samira Sarkis, Wissam Botrous, Nadim Abou Samra, Laeticia Semaan, Farah Shaer, Jean Paul Hage. Heaven Without People screened at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Festival.

6 out of 10 stars

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