The lush, emotional fabric of Nadine Labaki’s Caramel consistently hints at how our common humanity is nested in the strains and particulars of the everyday. Seen by some as not culturally expansive enough, not ‘Arabic’ enough, for not dealing directly with traditional cultural motifs or broader political problems, the film’s intimate approach to the humanity of its characters is itself a vital comment on the nature of the human experience.
Caramel is a film about women and about Lebanon, but it is not strictly or exclusively that; there is something that goes more directly to the core of what makes any of us what we are. Longing, and the problem of how to reach out for what makes us feel, without betraying our surroundings or ourselves, is central to the story Labaki tells in Caramel.
We never learn what situation any of the characters individually lives as a result of the political and military conflict the nation of Lebanon experienced, though we find one character after another facing the problem of longing for something —an intangible, a human bond, the fact of being understood and loved by another person— not so easy to find in their surroundings.
Layale, the character Labaki herself plays, is torn between a life she is living, as a result of desiring perhaps too deeply a love that cannot be what she wants it to be, and the life she would make for herself, had she the choice. Each of the other characters mirrors this experience in some way, though each story is different, and each is faced with her own process of self discovery.
Constructing her narrative this way allows the first-time feature-film director to perform an impressive balancing act: she can reveal the pressures and split loyalties experienced by women in this culture, while also revealing the fact that this is a culture fed into by long traditions from competing broader models of civilization, without exploring political conflict at all.
She is also able to reveal the personal pressures and cultural tensions experienced by each character without telling us exactly where they originate. This also allows her to tell us a story that is at once uniquely Lebanese and fluidly universal, in its simplicity and in its emotional poignancy. The characters whose story is opened up to us may live next door, or may be men in our lives instead of women, or may be any of the viewers.
This is not just another film about something human which becomes resonant for all who see it. Some people may relate more than others and it doesn’t really pretend to be universal. But the artistry with which Nadine Labaki colors the lives of the characters in her story, the richness of feeling and the close-to-surface deep emotion made apparent, give us the chance to travel with her to a place we may never have been, into the inner sanctum of a private sphere that has much to tell us about ourselves.
One could be forgiven for arguing that her approach deliberately excludes the controversial, the ideological or the sectarian, that it deliberately avoids making any but the most vague comment on the violent political crisis by which her country is besieged. And that is because she has made a conscious choice to forego such a narrative, opting instead to highlight the non-political, non-ideological, non-sectarian humanity lived by her characters in a world just as real as any those more abstract big-picture considerations, or maybe more real.
Caramel will not give us the answer to personal stresses, nor to finding love, nor to generations’ old political conflicts. But it will do what it was intended, I believe, to do: provide us with a glimpse of how human beings deal with emptiness, longing and the search for warmth in a world where for one reason or another, these things are hard to come by. And that is a worthy contribution to any discussion of life in Lebanon, or the region, or this world.