Unless you are a rabid scholar of Arab cinema or you were a die-hard devotee of 1960s art house presentations, it is likely you’ve never heard of “The Broken Wings,” a 1962 drama from Lebanon. Based on the memoir by Kahlil Gibran (best known today for “The Prophet”) and directed by Yousef Malouf, “The Broken Wings” was among the first Lebanese films to gain global release, albeit belatedly (it didn’t come to the U.S. until 1968).
Over time, “The Broken Wings” disappeared from circulation and in the 1970s it was believed that all prints were destroyed during the carnage and ruin brought by Lebanon’s horrific civil war. A few years ago, however, one extant print with English subtitles was discovered in an abandoned church outside of Beirut. This print was restored as well as it could be, and when viewed today “The Broken Wings” emerges as a lost masterpiece of the global cinema. To be unaware of “The Broken Wings” and its lyrical majesty is to have a major hole in your film history and appreciation knowledge.
“The Broken Wings” takes place in Beirut of the early 1900s. Gibran is a young aspiring poet-artist who arrives in the city and immediately makes the acquaintance of Shiekh Fares, an elderly aristocrat who knew Gibran’s father years ago. Fares’ only child is Salma, an exquisite young woman for whom Gibran immediately falls in love. Salma finds an equal attraction with Gibran, although the conventions of the time require their time together be spent under the watchful eye of a chaperone, in this case Salma’s aunt.
However, the local bishop has taken it upon himself to match Salma as the bride of his nephew Mansoor Bey, a ne’er-do-well who frequents the local cabarets and who conducts an open affair with a popular dancer. Despite Salma’s protests, her father proceeds with the match and Gibran watches in profound sadness as his love is given to a man who is cold to her. With Shiekh Fares’ death, Mansoor Bey takes control of Salma’s considerable inheritance and begins to waste it in gambling and reckless spending. Salma steals away on occasion to be with Gibran, but their relationship remains pure and chaste. When Mansoor Bey demands that Salma give him an heir, she sadly follows his demands. A son is born to Mansoor Bey, but the celebration is quickly shattered when the baby abruptly dies minutes after birth. Salma, whose health was severely weakened during the pregnancy and childbirth, looks upon her dead infant as her guide out of the unhappiness that imprisons her and follows the child into death. Gibran, whose artistic focus left him unprepared for the cruelty of the world, finds himself alone in emotional torment when Salma is laid to rest.
Contemporary Western audiences who come to this small, black-and-white film may find some problems adjusting to its personality. The acting and production is, admittedly, stylized and distinct for both the time and location of its creation (it is closer in mood and method to the early works of India’s Satyajit Ray than to European cinema of that era). Yet what some people may consider as slow, others would view as serene. And by flowing in its unhurried and lyrical manner, “The Broken Wings” actually pulls a far more devastating gut punch when its tragic climax is reached. This is the much-needed film which reminds us that so much more can be achieved on screen without the over-reliance on screaming or freneticism.
The beauty in “The Broken Wings” comes from an endless skein of small moments and subtle gestures. When Gibran first visits Shiekh Fares, he continually and impatiently glances at an empty chair in hopes that Salma (of whom he has heard much) will arrive. Then there is the look of mild agitation from Salma’s chaperone/aunt, who waits in a horse-drawn carriage with slight impatience while Salma and Gibran leisurely return from their unsupervised stroll. There is also the haunting look on Salma’s face during the wedding ceremony, where she gazes into the distance with the rue and anguish of a condemned captive knowing that life imprisonment has become an ordained fate. When the married Mansoor Bey prematurely ends his period of mourning for his departed father-in-law, he flings his black necktie on the bedpost; Salma discovers it later in the evening and holds it in sorrow, knowing that her husband’s callous behavior has hit a new low. And when news of the double deaths comes to Mansoor Bey, the camera pauses on his fist as it shatters a celebratory drink. The shower of liquor and glass from his fingers then becomes the rain of earth out of Gibran’s hand as he stands alone before Salma’s grave.
Of particular note to contemporary audiences is a scene when Salma and her aunt go to church, they pause at a mosque and ask the local imam for his spiritual insight. This brief scene serves, in hindsight, a double dose of loss: recognizing how the faiths easily lived together in pre-Civil War Lebanon and how respect between different religious traditions has been shattered in recent years due to fundamentalism and savage political agendas.
Much of the strength of “The Broken Wings” comes from the astonishing performance of Nidal Ashkar as Salma. As a woman of unparalleled beauty, she clearly dominates each scene with her physical presence. Yet the depth of her performance, ranging from the emotional and intellectual awakening she feels in Gibran’s presence and the endless suffering she experiences in her miserable marriage, reflects the stunning sense of dramatic power which gives the film its soul. Her final scene, looking with loss into the crib of her dead infant and knowing that her life has come to an end, is among the most heartbreaking moments ever captured on film. While the men who form the love triangle (Pierre Borday as Gibran and Saladin Nader as Mansoor Bey) are a bit mature to play young suitors, they nonetheless fill their roles with intelligence and vigor.
The restoration of “The Broken Wings” is not flawless: there are a couple of splices that abruptly switch the scenes, the subtitles are occasionally lost against the pale background, and the soundtrack has a few hisses and rumbles that were not cleaned away. But even with these imperfections, the power of “The Broken Wings” is undiminished. In fact, the film’s current state mirrors the health of its nation of origin: brought to the point of destruction, it has returned (perhaps a bit worse for wear) but still vibrant and challenging for those who seek it out.
One should hope (indeed, one should pray) that “The Broken Wings” can find its way back into theatrical release. To come upon this film is like opening a long-buried treasure chest, and its wealth should be shared with as many people as possible.