Writer-director Danielle Arbid’s In the Battlefields takes place in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Civil war is being waged on the streets, but it’s the domestic conflict inside a middle-class Beirut apartment building that’s most terrorizing.
Arbid summons a stirring social and sexual awakening in the patient expression of 12-year-old Lina (Marianne Feghali), who spends much of the film watching her family self-destruct. Her vicious aunt, Yvonne (Laudi Arbid), mistreats her maid, Siham (Rawia El Chab), while her father, Fouad (Aouni Kawass), having incurred a fortune in gambling debts, is hounded by local thugs. What with the suffocating morass of frustration and rage that consumes these emotional cripples, the film is in many ways kin to Lucretia Martel’s La Cienaga.
Arbid has an Antonioniesque talent for contrast, pitting interior and exterior spaces against each other to call attention to a communion between the two realms. Battles are fought and Lina watches as the dust settles, but soon she discovers that her actions have powerful implications and quickly takes on the role of resistance fighter. When Siham doesn’t prepare a dish to her monstrous boss’s liking and is dutifully embarrassed before a roomful of people, Lina reacts to her aunt’s bourgeois aggression by pulling a table full of food to the floor.
Immediately an allegiance is formed, and via her friendship with the older Siham, Lina meets her first boy and receives her first kiss. But after Lina naïvely betrays Siham, prisons are built and more explosions are set off. Arbid may not stress the politics of the civil war in Lebanon, but its emotional toll is clearly felt, not only in the cruel choices the film’s characters make but also in the shots of devastated buildings outside the Beirut apartment. Even in the wake of wars, people continue to experience everyday melodramas, a point that Aribid stresses in paralleling a country’s social unrest with a girl’s coming of age.