By Steve Warren – Contributing Film Critic

Extraordinary acting, exotic beauty shop weave a Lebanese ‘Magnolias’

Butch shampoo girl: Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) likes women but seems wary of doing anything about it.

Three words: Lebanese chick flick.

Now that the crowds have moved on to the next page, we can talk about "Caramel," which shows some of the differences and many similarities between Lebanese culture and movies and our own.

A story of women whose lives revolve around a Beirut beauty shop, "Caramel" was directed and co-written (with two men) by its star, Nadine Labaki. She plays Layale, the owner of Si Bella, who takes breaks whenever her married lover summons her for a tryst.

The other stylist, Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) is engaged to a hot-tempered local lad who hardly appears in the film after his explosive introduction. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), the shampoo girl and general flunky, quickly reveals herself as a lesbian by the way she looks at another woman on the bus. But it’s not something she’ll discuss, even with the women she works with.

The shop’s best customer, Jamale (Gisele Aouad) is an aging former soap star who goes on a lot of auditions but never gets hired. The hardest thing for her to act is her age.

Running an even smaller business nearby is the seamstress known as Auntie Rose (Siham Haddad). She lives with her older sister, Lili (Aziza Semaan), who’s completely around the bend mentally. Lili spends her days roaming the streets, picking up bits of paper including parking tickets she thinks are love notes from some long-ago man in her life.

Lili has nothing to look forward to but following oblivion with death, but the other women have ups and downs that could lead to happy endings. Or not.

Repeatedly disappointed by her lover, Layale becomes obsessed with getting to know his wife, the woman he chooses over her. The solution to Layale’s problem is under her nose all the time. Youssef (Adel Karam), the local cop is smitten with her, but will she notice before she does something stupid?

Nisrine, a Muslim, worries that her fiance will discover she’s not a virgin on their wedding night. But there’s a clinic that can fix that, apparently a common practice in Lebanon.

Siham (Fatme Safa), a beautiful woman with hair down to her waist, wanders into the shop and becomes a regular customer of Rima’s. Their shampoo scenes are the most intimate acts shown in the film, hotter than a lot of Hollywood sex scenes. But will their unspoken feelings ever be spoken?

Even Rose has a romantic possibility that develops when an elderly gentleman, Charles (Dimitri Stancofski) comes in to get a suit altered. Each story reaches a different degree of resolution as each woman is left with a different degree of happiness, or potential happiness.

Some of the women are Christian, some Muslim, but while religion may be important in their own lives it’s never a factor in their friendship. There are signs of creeping westernization everywhere, including the French that mixes freely with Arabic in the dialogue.

American women may view their Lebanese counterparts as roughly where they were 40 years ago, in the early days of women’s liberation. They may also see "Caramel" as a cross between "Beauty Shop" and "Waiting to Exhale," but it reminded me more of recent Spanish films by Almodovar wannabes.

Making her first feature, Labaki aims for entertainment not great art and hits the mark. The performances are all good, but considering that none of the women are professional actresses, they’re extraordinary.

Just when you think the story might be happening around the corner, in the recent past if not the present, along comes a Lebanese curve like hotels not permitting women to rent rooms without showing proof that they’re married. Touches like that keep "Caramel" exotic enough to be interesting when its situations threaten to become mundane.


Director: Nadine Labaki
Cast: Nadine Labaki, Adel Karam, Ismail Antar a& Joanna Moukarzel
Opens: March 7 at the Inwood. 1 hr. 55 min. PG


"Nightmare on Elm Street" geeks are hoping to make a difference with the Arkansas justice system.

The second annual Texas Fear Fest is raising money and awareness for the West Memphis Three, a defense fund for Damien Echols, pictured, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin three men who in 1993 were found guilty of murdering and mutilating three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark.

The WM3 saga was brilliantly captured as real-life horror in the "Paradise Lost" documentary especially since their guilt was entirely attributed to rumors of satanic cult worship. In the ’90s, Echols was a longhaired emo teen who was often called a "fag." Damning gossip spread that he had castrated the mutilated boys and that police discovered a jar in Echols’ bedroom that contained the boys’ testicles.

No evidence was ever found that linked the WM3 to the murdered boys. Yet unfathomably, Echols was sentenced to death. Since 1993, many celebrities already helped raise WM3 awareness, including Margaret Cho, Natalie Merchant and Henry Rollins.

Actors, directors and other horror-film luminaries will be at the Texas Fear Fest, March 7-9 at the Westin Park Central, 12720 Merit Dr. Day passes $25.


FAMILY VALUES: "For the Bible Tells Me So" explores the family ties of Former Majority/Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and his lesbian daughter Chrissy (far right).

If you missed the theatrical release, then you missed out big time. "For the Bible Tells Me So" is an impeccable documentary that reconciles homosexuality and scripture.

Provocative and heartfelt, the film follows the experiences of five Christian-American families including those of former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson. The historical dissection of the word "abomination" and how it has been used as a badge of hate is nothing less than brilliant. The doc also includes footage from a Cathedral of Hope service.

The DVD edition was released last week, and on Friday, Horizon Unitarian Universalist will show the film and moderate a panel discussion.

Horizon Unitarian Universalist, 1641 Hebron Parkway, Carrollton. March 7 at 7 p.m. 972-492-4940.

These articles appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 7, 2008
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