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A young woman haunted by a family enigma returns to her ancestral home in rural Lebanon to find some answers in Go Home, the fiction debut of Beirut-Born, Mexico- and France-raised female filmmaker Jihane Chouaib. This Busan New Currents world premiere is in some ways a fictionalized version of the story of the director’s sister, Nada, one of the protagonists of Jihane’s 2011 documentary Pays revé, about four Lebanese emigrants, exiled because of the Civil War, who dreamt about the (now largely non-existent) country of their childhood. Starring Iranian arthouse darling Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly, The Patience Stone) as Nada, this niche drama should find some willing takers on the festival circuit but isn’t quite singular or mature enough for more than a few scattered theatrical engagements.
Nada is a young but determined and fearless woman, arriving alone with a small carry-on in the middle of nowhere, or more precisely the outskirts of a small village high up in the Lebanese mountains (and filmed in the Chouf region, south of Beirut). Without batting an eye, she installs herself in the once-grand home of her family, which has been abandoned for years. Never mind the fact the locals have used the yard as a garbage heap, or that she finds dried blood on the paint-peeled walls and empty shell casings strewn about the rooms, all hinting at a dark past.
Even a fresh “Go Home” graffito Nada finds indoors after her first night there doesn’t scare her away. Nothing can stop her from her mission, which is to figure out what happened exactly to the owner of the house, her grandfather, who disappeared during the Civil War. Short flashbacks, woven in throughout the film by Belgian editor Ludo Troch, suggest Nada has been plagued by this question since she was a little girl, trying to make sense of events she witnessed but was too small to comprehend (and which would finally lead to her family’s departure for Europe).
But as a single woman who doesn’t remember much Arabic, communication with the locals — who all seem to be male — proves to be complicated. A former dancer (like Chouaib’s sister), Nada is nominally in town to visit her aging aunt and devout Christian, Nour (the great Mireille Maalouf, who has worked with Peter Brook), the sister of her mysterious grandfather. But before she can help solve any mystery, Nour dies.
The film’s first act isn’t all that talky, also because there aren’t that many people for Nada to talk too. But Chouaib and Farahani impressively manage to draw the viewer in, with the specter of death and a thick air of secrecy hanging heavy over the proceedings from the first frame and Nada clearly harnessing her stubborn determination, hoping to use it as a kind of battering ram. The drab, cold and clammy locations, shot in the depth of winter, reinforce the film’s gloomy and mysterious tone, which is further aided by Tommaso Fiorilli’s moody cinematography and the film’s score. And a lot of details simply generate more questions: Don’t the locals talk to Nada “simply” because she’s a woman or because they know more about her granddad’s disappearance or death?
Things warm up for both Nada and the audience when, in the film’s midsection, her brother, Samir (Maximilien Seweryn), or Sam for short, finally comes to town, charged by their father with selling the mansion. Though that task is complicated by the fact they need a death certificate for their grandfather, Sam does manage to hit it off with the locals. Nada, on the other hand, still doesn’t get much further than striking up a passive-aggressive acquaintance with an inscrutable teenage roughneck, Jalal (intense newcomer Francois Nour).
If Sam’s arrival reveals that Chouaib has been manipulating certain narrative elements to make a point — Sam has no qualms about interacting with other local female family members, which Nada doesn’t, for example — it also provides the film with some much-needed human kindness. Indeed, Sam and Nada’s rapport is almost flirtatious, with further flashbacks suggesting they’ve always had a very playful yet borderline bossy rapport. One generation of this family, Chouaib seems to imply, may have been affected by the Civil War but the next generations have continued to prosper outside of Lebanon, even if they are inexplicably drawn to their ancestral home and homeland. But how they feel about this is something that’s only hinted at, rather than actually explored.
Indeed, if the film, also written by the director, has quite a lot of potential, it doesn’t know quite what to do with all of the various elements once they have been put into place. The resolution of the mystery of Granddad’s disappearance is unsatisfactory and a little clunky, relying on a barely motivated road trip and inelegant flashbacks. And Chouaib struggles to tie Jalal convincingly into the main plot; it’s now as if the Nada/Jalal and Nada/Sam relationships come from two separate films in which the other man doesn’t (need to) exist. And while the film’s locations are aces, production designer Zeina Saab de Melero overdoes Nada’s need to decorate the cavernous home with wall-to-wall bric-a-brac that feels imported straight out of a too-quirky-by-half Sundance indie. If only Go Home had imported something of those films’ need to structure their stories properly.
Production companies: Paraiso Production, Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion, Eklektik Productions
Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Maximilien Seweryn, François Nour, Mireille Maalouf, Julia Kassar, Mohamad Akil
Writer-Director: Jihane Chouaib
Producers: Nathalie Trafford, Samir, Marie Besson
Executive producer: Pierre Sarraf
Director of photography: Tommaso Fiorilli
Production designer: Zeina Saab De Melero
Costume designer: Beatrice Harb
Editor: Ludo Troch
Music: Beatrice Wick, Bachar Mar Khalife
No rating, 111 minutes
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