Grade:  B-
Not rated (would be PG-13)

Americans have never been good at thinking about the future. A 2019 Northwestern Mutual poll found that 15 percent of Americans age 40 and older haven’t even put aside a single dollar toward their retirement years. And if the price of gas isn’t too crazy, no one gives a second thought as to whether the oil will run out some day, or whether the polluting side-effects of petroleum consumption will one day become intolerable. Same with the mountains of trash that Americans produce on a daily basis. Does anyone wonder if there will ever come a time when all the refuse becomes too much for the government to handle?

Costa Brava, Lebanon (2021)is an environmentalist fable in Arabic (English subtitles) from Mounia Akl and the Lebanese entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the Oscars. A cautionary tale set in the near future, it has an engaging cast and some powerful moments as it tries to sound the alarm to alert people to an impending crisis of waste management. Except that in some countries it’s not all that impending. It’s already happening. Visitors to Egypt’s pyramids, for example, must first drive past mounds of trash pushed to the sides of roads and freeways. And that could happen anywhere . . . and everywhere.

Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki star as Walid and Soraya, a couple who eight years earlier decided to leave their Beirut home because of the poor air quality, pollution, and corrupt politics that made life there untenable. Now they live in the mountains with Walid’s aged mother and the couple’s two daughters: a teenager eager for more than the sheltered life her parents provide, and a precocious adolescent. Presumably because of the mother’s previous income from her pre-marriage career as a popular singer, they were able to build a house in the country’s last unspoiled place, an idyllic hillside home that even has the luxury of a small in-ground swimming pool. But it doesn’t take long for this paradise to be lost, and that’s the whole point of the film. Society’s problems are everyone’s problem. There’s no escaping them—even if you try to live off the grid.

You’d think that Walid and Soraya, former activists who met at a protest, would know that. But the impulse to survive and protect loved ones is even stronger than the drive to fight for the change that society needs. Alas, not long after we meet this family, men from the government show up. And like the earth-moving equipment operators from earlier films such as The Emerald Forest or Avatar who displaced forest-dwellers, the workers force the family to make the same hard decision that drove them to the mountains in the first place. On a micro level, Costa Brava, Lebanon could have been about any disaster, because it’s an intimate look—rendered so by Akl’s directorial style—of how one family deals with adversity.

I don’t know of any family that has managed to avoid hardships or heartbreaks, so watching this family and how they deal with challenges that are literally dropped at their doorstep can be engrossing, even inspirational. The film shows that life—including all of the urges and hopes and dreams that make us human—goes on no matter what the external conditions. And, of course, seeing people in a small Asian nation wrestling with environmental issues on a different level can be thought provoking. Could pollution or trash spark the next “Go West” movement in America, with landfills sprawling ever westward?  

Akl manages to be more provocative than preachy in her debut feature film, but because the fable itself is so straightforward and the film very slowly builds to an unsurprising ending, I can’t help but think that it might have been helped by a heavier hand in the cutting room. Costa Brava, Lebanon clocks in at 104 minutes, but could have been just as effective, if not more so, had it been edited to 90 minutes. Even so, this family and what happened to them sticks with you . . . the way all simple fables do.

Entire family:  No (6th grade and older?)
Run time:  104 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.66:1
Featured audio:  Arabic DTS 5.1 Surround (with English subtitles)
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Best Buy link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some suggestive scenes, brief violence and language)

Language: 4/10—Some f-bombs and lesser swearwords, all expressed in Arabic with English subtitles

Sex: 3/10—The daughter seeks out her first sexual experience and the camera catches her deliberately parting her legs for a certain worker to see (though we see nothing); a married couple kisses, embraces

Violence: 2/10—Not much here except for a fist-driven beat-down that’s shown from a distance and through an open window

Adult situations: 3/10—Some drinking and smoking, and some matter-of-fact adult attitudes and behavior amplified because of the adolescent that displays them

Takeaway: This accomplished first feature film leaves you anxious to see what Akl, who has taught directing and screenwriting at Northwestern University and was a preceptor in Screenwriting and Directing at Columbia in NYC, will do next