There’s a whole subgenre of movies about how war looks through the eyes of a child—a lineage of violent stories told from the initially unblemished perspective of youth, including Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth; last year’s grueling The Painted Bird; and the gorgeous, tragic, Studio Ghibli classic Grave Of The Fireflies. Director Oualid Mouaness adopts the same approach in 1982, Lebanon’s entry for this year’s Oscars, which follows a fifth-grader with a crush on a fellow student on June 6, 1982, the day that Israel invaded Lebanon. But while the young actors draw us into this recognizable world of secret notes and schoolyard fights, Mouaness’ insistence that love is a unifying force and opened-hearted acceptance is all we need doesn’t quite match the intensity of the aggression and bloodshed that the film is re-creating. The film doesn’t sink to the farcical lows of Jojo Rabbit, but it suffers from the same kind of trivializing ending.
As the first Lebanese film to address Israel’s invasion of the Middle Eastern country and the escalation of the Lebanese Civil War, 1982 shows us the other side of the conflict already explored from the Israeli perspective in 2008’s Waltz With Bashir and 2009’s Lebanon. Those films specifically focused on the experiences of Israeli soldiers who took part in invading south Lebanon and laying siege to Beirut while fighting the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Thousands of Lebanese civilians died as a result of the fighting between Israeli forces and Lebanese Christian militias on one side and Lebanese Muslims and PLO members on the other. Decades later, the invasion remains a formative experience in the country’s self-identity.
Little of this is explicitly laid out in 1982, however, so those without advance knowledge might be slightly lost. Mouaness, who based his script on his own childhood memories, drops in various clues about characters’ identities: a cross hanging in a teacher’s car; a child asking another if they’re Muslim because they live in West Beirut, rather than the predominately Christian East Beirut. But the signs of the invasion begin as far-off problems, as distant as the planes flying far overhead and the radio crackle of France and the United States condemning the Israeli invasion without mobilizing against it. Something is happening in West Beirut, but at this Quaker school high up in the mountains of East Beirut, teachers and students alike try to maintain some kind of normalcy.
Fifth-grader Wissam (Mohamad Dalli), one of the school’s best students, has nursed a crush on classmate Joana (Gia Madi) for months, and with only a few days left in the school year, he’s decided to tell her via an anonymous love note snuck into her locker. While he works up the nerve to come clean about his feelings—practicing various versions of “I love you” in English and Arabic—the teachers at the school try to keep order, all while worrying about their own families, the future of their country, and how to keep their students safe. Yasmine (actor/fellow filmmaker Nadine Labaki) has a sick father and a brother who’s gone south to join a Christian militia aiding the Israelis. Fellow teacher Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman) carries around a handheld radio so he can listen to news updates in real time, and the school’s administrator, Ms. Leila (Aliya Khalidi), prepares for the possibility of a full evacuation. With each passing minute, the violence seems to get closer.
1982 cuts between the children and their schoolyard dramas and the adults and their slipping façade of normalcy: While Wissam sketches a robot, its multicolored armor and blocky design reminiscent of an ’80s Transformer, Ms. Laila fields calls from frantic parents worried the checkpoints between East and West Beirut will close before they can come collect their children. On a scene-by-scene level, the claustrophobia and shifting relationship dynamics work, and Dalli and Labaki are both wonderful—the former natural and intuitive, the latter exhibiting the same mixture of steeliness and warmth that characterized her breakout turn in her own directorial debut, Caramel.
Mouaness makes clear that the school occupies its own world, beginning the film with an extremely wide overhead shot of the rolling landscape and then zooming in to situate it high above the battle below; he reverses that sequence later to wrench us out of this once-idyllic place. Cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard adds an edge of menace to the stillness: homing in on teachers staring outside the windows of their classrooms instead of watching the students inside; centering a Lebanese flag flapping in the deepening haze falling over the school. The thoughtfulness with which 1982 treats its younger characters makes for some emotionally affecting moments.
What Mouaness fails to convey very deeply is what the film’s adult characters—Yasmine, Ms. Laila, or the school’s only non-Lebanese teacher, the white Mr. Brown (Alistair Brett)—think about the invasion. For viewers unaware of the myriad divisions in Lebanon that led to the lengthy civil war, the adults’ conversations are the only window into this world, and they’re not the cleanest one. Why would Yasmine be so afraid for her brother? Why would Joseph be so frustrated with her because of it? All 1982 offers is reactions, but without clear motivations for these characters, the film can’t quite connect what is happening inside the school with what is happening outside of it.
Perhaps this is because Mouaness, who was a child in 1982, can speak more credibly to the experiences of children during this time than those of adults. Or maybe 1982 is trying to argue that what brings us together is more important than what drives us apart. Mouaness dedicates the film to the “resilient people of Lebanon,” and scenes of, say, a teacher inviting another over for dinner or Wissam listening in quiet delight to someone playing Bach on the other side of a classroom door are clearly meant to evoke some shared sense of beauty and community. But those particular moments seem somewhat insignificant when juxtaposed with the historical events that 1982 is re-creating, and so the film’s insistence that love wins ultimately falls flat. By the end, the film abandons any attempt to meaningfully understand this moment in time and instead relies on a disjointed, adolescent fantasy to communicate a message of unity. Those final moments of whimsy serve as a disappointing ending to what was otherwise an engrossing snapshot of national crisis.