'Tramontane' ('Rabih'): Cannes Review

Tramontane - H 2016
Courtesy of Le Bureau
An ambitious but flawed first feature.

Vatche Boulghourjian's debut feature looks at the intricate relationship of Lebanese citizens with their country through the story of a blind young man who needs to renew his passport.

A blind musician’s need for a passport to travel abroad sends him on an unexpected voyage of discovery of his origins and his country in Tramontane (Rabih), the feature debut from Kuwait-born Lebanese director Vatche Boulghourjian. Part of the Critics’ Week in Cannes, this is a tonally hushed but thematically ambitious drama that tries to draw parallels between a blind bard’s journey to uncover his ancestry and a nation’s problems to try and get ahead while ignoring its past. Though Boulghourjian never quite manages to properly fuse the personal and political aspects, much less advance them simultaneously, the film is nonetheless compelling because of the dignified performance of visually impaired musician Barakat Jabbour in the lead. Beyond the Middle East, this has niche theatrical potential in territories such as France.

Rabih (Jabbour), from a small village, attends a school of the blind, where he’s also part of the choir and plays several instruments. When they plan to go to Europe for a concert, he goes to the authorities to request a passport but they inform him that his current ID might be a forgery. Rabih thus asks his mother, Samar (Julia Kassar), to help find his birth records so he can apply for new papers, but they seem to be missing too. Not having a birth certificate isn’t as unusual in Lebanon as it might be elsewhere, since many official records were lost in the country’s various wars. But when Mom admits she’s unable to do a blood test to establish their familial relationship, things start to unravel.

On a purely narrative level, Tramontane is driven by Rabih’s quest to find out where he came from. But where and under what circumstances he was born and/or put up for adoption and by whom seems to be the subject of a lot of debate, sending Rabih on a trip around the country as the visits various villages with the help of a kind taxi driver and following up every possible lead given to him by his mother, his uncle Hisham (Toufic Barakat) and the people he meets along the way. In one of several subplots that's somewhat awkwardly threaded into the main narrative, Hisham subsequently goes missing. 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that a blind bard searching for his origins in a nation that has been frequently war-torn is a setup heavy with metaphorical possibilities. As the film progresses, it emerges that Rabih was born in 1988, during the War of the Camps, an intensification of the country’s sectarian and interregional conflicts that were in turn part of the Lebanese Civil War. The origins of the boy could thus potentially be explosive, though Boulghourjian finally opts to concentrate not on the various opposing sides — Tramontane never becomes too overtly political — but the impact the conflict had on families across the divides and how they subsequently ignore or cover up what has happened in the past. But without a clearer and more detailed handle on the politics and how the past informs the present, the main takeaways from the film seem to be that war is messy and a lot of bad things happened, which feels like a meager return on a 105-minute investment. (Though by no means a home run, the recent Franco-Lebanese film Go Home, starring Golshifteh Farahani, did a better job of conveying how political choices and events can reverberate in individual lives many years down the line.)

Despite Boulghourjian’s magnetic screen presence, especially in the handful of scenes in which he sings and performs, there’s hardly any indication of how the loss of his sense of belonging to a particular family and community has affected him. It’s abundantly clear in Boulghourjian’s screenplay that the protagonist wants to know where he came from. But what’s ignored to a large extent is how Rabih feels about the fact that, suddenly, he doesn’t know anymore and that toward the end, he might have to redefine who he is. The only thing that could suggest something about Rabih’s evolving inner state is the music that he performs, though the potentially evolving choice of songs is hard to read for non-specialists.

Production companies: Abbout Productions, Rebus Film Production, Le Bureau Films

Cast: Barakat Jabbour, Julia Kassar, Toufic Barakat

Writer-Director: Vatche Boulghourjian

Producers: Caroline Oliveira, Georges Schoucair

Executive producers: Alexander Akoka, Philippe Akoka

Co-producer: Gabrielle Dumon

Director of photography: James Lee Phelan

Production designer: Nadine Ghanem

Editor: Nadia Ben Rachid

Music: Cynthia Zaven

Sales: The Bureau Sales

No rating, 105 minutes