Tramontane (2016)

Tramontane first published by Sight & Sound, October 2017

Review: “Send me an answer… and relieve me. Even if you wish to accuse me, don’t spare me. Send me an answer.”

In the opening scene of Tramontane, a 24-year-old musician (Barakat Jabbar) sings this traditional song – whose lyrics are a plea for truth, however painful – at an outdoor gathering of family and friends in the villa of his uncle, the village bigwig Hisham Malek (Toufic Barakat). It is a joyous, celebratory occasion, from which discordant realities – like Hisham’s old comrade-at-arms Omar (Raymon Haddouni) – are strictly excluded. Significantly, the musician’s widowed mother and Hisham’s sister Samar (Julia Kassar) dismisses Omar at the villa’s gate with a deception, claiming that Hisham is away in Beirut. The Maleks, it will emerge, have long been living a lie.

Both literally and metaphorically blind, the musician is – or at least thinks he is – Rabih, which is also the Arabic title of Vatche Boulghourjian’s feature debut, marking both the young man’s identity and its fictionalisation as the film’s central theme. Applying for a passport so that he can travel to Europe with his band, Rabih discovers that his identification papers are all false, leading him to go on something of a wild goose chase, first to the tiny hamlet of Kfarlaya in Lebanon’s south, and then to the salt fields of Enfeh, an Armenian orphanage in Jbeil, a psychiatric hospital in Wardieh, and finally across the mountains (hence the film’s English title) to the village of Wadi El Tin. Along the way he hears a series of tall tales about his own lost past and his country’s, as the tangled, traumatic history of sufferings and crimes in Lebanon’s Civil War is conveniently dissembled, forgotten or (re)forged. Here identity is both contested territory, and a minefield – and we are left, along with Rabih, to piece together exactly who he is, and how his ex-military uncle came across him as a baby, from shreds of testimony which, although conflicting, point to unpleasant truths about Hisham’s wartime conduct. Meanwhile, those who lost ‘Rabih’ as a child, no less than those who gained him, wish to leave the unpleasant facts buried.

In a small scene near the beginning Tramontane, Rabih seeks a violin for use in his coming European concert. “It’s an old violin,” the salesman explains. “It sounds like silk. Her grandfather brought it from Egypt. We don’t know its exact origin.” This instrument, without precise provenance but still capable of making beautiful music, is a clear analogue for Rabih himself, who in the film’s final sequence is shown publicly performing the same classical piece that he sang at the beginning, only in “a new arrangement,” and with the lyrics newly intensified as a lament for a nation’s self-deception (with Samar and Hisham again forming part of his audience). Like Rabih, the film uses its art to rearrange Lebanon’s past as a way to look to the future. At times meandering, and heavy-handed with it symbolism, Tramontane nonetheless earnestly avoids any false notes.

Synopsis: The village of Ein Ouraya, Lebanon, c. 2012. When 24-year-old blind musician Rabih Malek applies for a passport, the authorities declare his existing documents false. Rabih’s ‘mother’ Samar reveals that he was found abandoned as a baby in 1988 by his ‘uncle’ Hisham’s platoon in the war-ravaged southern village of Kfarlaya. Travelling to Kfarlaya, Rabih learns that no baby died or went missing there in 1988. Hisham’s former platoon comrade Omar directs Rabih to another comrade, Aziz, in Enfeh. Aziz claims that Hisham had rescued baby Rabih from a burning car in Beirut (an incident that caused Rabih’s blindness), had taken him to the Armenian orphanage, but then had changed his mind and reclaimed Rabih for himself, only to have handed Rabih over to Samar when his own fiancée left him. The Armenian orphanage in Jbeil denies Rabih was ever there. Samar reveals Hisham’s former fiancée was May, the sister of Hisham’s comrade Nabil (said now to be in Africa). May tells Rabih that Nabil has in fact spent 20 years in the Wardieh Psychiatric Hospital for speaking out against ‘them’. Rabih visits Nabil, who reveals that Hisham took baby Rabih during an operation against Rabih’s father Rafik, who was already known to Hisham, in the transmontane village of Wadi El Tin. There Rabih finds Rafik’s elderly parents, who prefer to think of their lost grandson as long buried. Hisham returns to Ein Ouraya with new false documents for Rabih. Rabih gets his passport.

© Anton Bitel