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Five Lebanese women living in Beirut are caught between traditionalism and modernity in Nadine Labacki's critically acclaimed Sukkar banat a.k.a Caramel (2007). Bold, elegant, and irresistibly sensual, pic provides a fascinating yet sobering analysis of life in modern-day Lebanon where identity crisis is given a whole new meaning.
Why do people watch soap operas? Because they are easy to absorb entertainment, devoid of uncomfortable subjects, and meant to relax your nerves rather than present you with challenging themes demanding utmost concentration. At least this has been my experience with the few I have seen. Well, throw the above description out the window as it does not apply to Nadine Labacki's Cannes-screened charmer Caramel. From the moment I saw Layale (Labaki) and her colorful friends I knew that I was in for something special.
The story behind Caramel frankly isn't as original as I initially expected it to be. A woman in her mid 30s sees a married man who routinely cheats on his wife. She hopes that the man will leave his wife and build a family with her. She also works in a beauty salon where other women dream big.
Nisrine (Elmasri) is one of them. She is soon to be married to Bassam (Antar) who expects that his wife-to-be is, as all women should be, a virgin. But she isn't.
Rima (Moukarzel) another one of the beauty salon's workers, never dates. She is mostly quiet, reserved, and...attracted to Siham (Safa), a stunningly beautiful female with a long, olive-black, hair.
Rose (Haddad) is a tailor who has her own studio but everyone in the salon knows her. She has an extravagant new admirer who likes his trousers extra short.
And there is of course the old and senile Lili (Semaan) who drives Rose crazy. She also likes to collect the garbage in front of Rose's apartment.
Providing a predictable scheme of mini-stories where each of the main protagonists, in one way or another, comes to experience the joy of love as well as the bitter disappointments love is capable of producing Labacki quickly molds Caramel into something much more than a soap opera with a happy-ending. As the story progresses she offers an impressively realistic look at the impossible decisions women in Lebanon are asked to make: to remain truthful to the religious and impractical way of life the Lebanon of the past belongs to or embrace modernity and individualism the Lebanon of the future revolves around. The constant overlapping between those two cultural spheres of influence is absolutely astonishing to behold and understandably each of the clichés Caramel employs add to the story rather than diminish its appeal.
Technically Caramel is a flawlessly executed film. Labacki captures the essence of life in Lebanon in nearly every frame. From the quiet lit by sunlight streets of Lebanon to the intimate settings for the women and their partners in crime Caramel is as eye-opening of a film as they come.
Pic was part of the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival, Director's Fortnight, in 2007. Caramel was also screened at the Toronto Film Festival .
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and enhanced for widescreen TVs Caramel arrives on DVD with an interlaced transfer which I am fairly unimpressed with. There is plenty of "combing" here ranging from mild to severe. The lush color scheme this film is graced with also appears to be suffering quite a bit as colors are neither rich nor convincing, they are acceptable at best. Edge-enhancement isn't of much concern but I was able to spot its presence during selected scenes. Scratches, blemishes, or specks are not something to be concerned about as the print provided by Lions Gate is of immaculate condition. Still, the lack of proper progressive treatment is most disappointing.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Lebanese 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are available on this disc. Both of are of near excellent quality - the exotic soundtrack comes off the speaker flawlessly, without any issues to report, and dialog is generally very easy to follow. I did not detect any pop-ups, cracks, or hissings either. Optional English subtitles are provided for the main feature as well as HOH.
The only supplemental bit on this disc, aside from the theatrical trailer, is a short interview with the director of Caramel Nadine Labacki where she explains how this project materialized and the message her film carries. The specific comments she makes on the unique nature of present-days Lebanon, a society in transition, are excellent.
Irresistibly charming and flawlessly executed Caramel introduces to American audiences a Lebanese director with an enormous potential. This is a film for those who like their cinema mixing everything there is to mix: humor, drama, rhetoric, religion, erotica, and everything else that falls in between. Don't miss it. This being said, those of you who wish to own Caramel will be better off waiting for the UK release by Momentum Pictures coming this September. I am fairly certain the conversion issues this R1 disc is plagued with won't be of concern with it. Highly Recommended.