Too often with these movies I’m like the guy who slows down to get a closer look at an accident on the highway, even though he knows it’ll be distressing if he actually sees anything.
If I come across what is very likely to be a major downer movie, as long as the reviews and the descriptions indicate it’s a good quality film, I almost always add it to my list to watch. I don’t know why, other than just the morbid curiosity of the guy peeking at the accident. Heaven knows the last thing I need in my life is more negativity, more evidence of what a high proportion of human suffering is brought on by the willful evil and stupidity of people.
But I have to say even though Under the Bombs is as powerful in its depiction of brutality and pain as I expected, I didn’t experience it as unrelentingly negative. It doesn’t soften the horror of its subject matter, but at the same time it doesn’t get so caught up in that that it neglects the equally real love and positive emotions that can come to the surface when tragic events make people alive to what really matters in life.
A shaky ceasefire is in place after southern Lebanon has been devastated by Israeli bombing in the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah forces. A Lebanese woman arrives in Beirut from abroad. She is estranged from her husband, who is elsewhere abroad. She is desperate to make it to the town in the south where her six year old son is temporarily staying with her sister.
No cab driver will take her, for any price, due to the fact that the roads and bridges are badly damaged, and war and bombing could resume at any time. Finally she finds a cabbie who’s willing to brave the journey. Clearly he’s influenced by the cleavage he’s admiring as she talks. (My condemnation of his inappropriate focus under such dire circumstances is tempered only by the fact that I was similarly distracted. She really looks stacked from certain angles, less so from others.)
For the remainder of the movie, they are together, scrambling around the recent war zone amidst the rubble and distraught civilians, seeking knowledge of her sister and son. Are they alive? Are they dead? If alive, where have they gone or been taken? If dead, where are the bodies?
Along the way we get some of the cabbie’s backstory as well, the loved ones he’s lost in this and previous wars, the way his life and reputation have been adversely impacted by his brother’s joining a militia allied with the Israelis as a teenager.
The movie can certainly be seen as anti-Israel, though I’d say it’s more like 20% anti-Israel and 80% anti-war generically. Really the message is that whoever starts a war, whoever’s at fault, whoever wins, etc., the bottom line is that the overwhelming majority of the dead and maimed are people in the wrong place at the wrong time who in no sense deserve what they get.
It’s just another reminder that even if you’re not going to be a pacifist, at least make war the absolute last resort. (I know everyone says they do, but routinely such claims are simply false.)
It’s a wonderful performance by Nada Abou Farhat in the lead. Maybe some viewers will find her histrionics at the receipt of bad news overdone, but I thought there was a fierce realism to her raw emotions.
For that matter the cabbie (Georges Khabazz) is a consistently interesting character that I was curious to get to know better. The movie is clearly aided by having two compelling figures at its center.
Ironically, I bought the intense emotional moments just a little more than the less extreme ones. As I mentioned, the distraught mother wailing in lamentation about the fate or possible fate of her sister and son touched and impressed me. But I’m undecided about the “lighter” moments when she and the cabbie share a laugh, flirt, etc.
I can see it more so from him, because he’s kind of settled into a life of misfortune and long term grief. So it’s understandable he’s psychologically worked out ways that a certain amount of fun or sex or whatever can coexist with the negativity. But I imagine what the woman is going through as more of an all-consuming temporary trauma. I don’t know that for now anything could alter her focus from this mad, desperate search for her sister and son.
Which is not to say the lighter moments ring false to me. More that I’m uncertain whether to go along with them.
Even if there are elements to the growing connection between the two main characters that are maybe not as fully convincing as others, I still appreciated that aspect of the film, because that’s what keeps it from being exclusively a downer, the reminder that such positive human emotions are still possible even in such circumstances—the way the cabbie is able to genuinely care for a woman who was a stranger to him until very recently, the way the woman’s love for her son is so palpable.
Then the ending is quite a gut shot. Not what I was expecting, not what I wanted I suppose, but undeniably effective.
The movie doesn’t tell you what happens after the shock, but it leaves the door open to a certain healthy future for these characters that I’m definitely rooting for.
Under the Bombs is a good to very good film, not flawless and not fascinating the whole way, with moments of intense emotional force. A clear winner.