'Caramel' takes a sweet journey

  Love in Lebanon:  Nadine Labaki directs.
Caramel is a sweeter and more believable version of Steel Magnolias, Middle Eastern style.

The story revolves around five women, from their 20s to their 60s, who meet regularly in a Beirut beauty salon. A few work there, others are patrons. While they confide in one another, each has private moments only the audience is privy to. Foreign chick-flicks are rare animals, and this one works better than many of the more predictable American movies, largely because of its realistic characters and fascinating cultural backdrop. The secrets and obsessions of these women come off far more divinely than those of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Each of the women is in search of fulfillment, though their quests manifest themselves in a variety of ways.

Cultural rites and societal expectations clash with personal desires and a nascent sense of rebellion. But, interestingly, no mention is made of the violence that has ravaged the country. While the interconnected sagas of these Lebanese women are involving, some are more compelling than others, and a few are not sufficiently developed.

Perhaps the most poignant story focuses on the last chance for love for a seamstress (Sihame Haddad) caught up in daily struggles with her mother, who is suffering from dementia. And the travails of the thirtysomething character (director Nadine Labaki) and the love she finds with a shy police officer are filled with yearning.

The title refers to a hair removal process that uses sugar, which, when warmed, becomes caramel. The honeyed tones of the sugar as it's applied on the skin are an intriguing framing device.


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