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Melodrama Habibi - Variety Review (05/08/2008)

After a '70s-inspired animated opening, Tamba quickly sets two apparently mutually exclusive worlds on a collision course. In Paris, former crooner Bruno Caprice (Patrick Chesnais) now works as a curmudgeonly hotel receptionist. In Lebanon, Randa Hafouche (Julia Kassar), the warm-hearted, handicapped wife of an instant-coffee magnate, arranges for Bruno to be flown in for her birthday bash to sing his single hit chanson.

Randa is Bruno's biggest fan, mainly because she has extremely fond memories of one of his concerts during the Lebanese civil war in the '70s. However, Bruno has no memory of ever having visited the counntry.

Film's original title, which translates as "A Song in One's Head," more clearly underlines one of the movie's central ideas. Randa, using a popular song from the time, has created the happy memory of a wartime concert to offset all the misery around her. This "phantom memory" has kept Randa going all these years, and also gives Bruno a second stab at happiness.

However, the middle-aged lost souls are only lovers by proxy. Bruno ends up in the arms of the much younger Nadine (Pierette Katrib), Randa's beautician, whose father died during the war.

Apart from some predictable twists, pic also delicately explores life in a former war zone and the transformative power of music, even though the songs Tamba uses are not exactly profound (they were written with "Caramel" composer Khaled Mouzanar and are a perfect facsimile of the honest kitsch of the French '70s).

What could have been a Lebanese "The Singer," with Chesnais in the Gerard Depardieu role, is actually a blend of crowd-pleasing Middle East melodrama -- complete with stolen cars, worrying mothers and a kidnapping -- and more thoughtful drama that shares some themes with "Persepolis."

Chesnais essentially reprises his role as a washed-up sad sack on the road to redemption from "Not Here to Be Loved," while his Lebanese colleagues add some color, especially vet Gabriel Yammine as Randa's driver. Kassar makes the most of her somewhat underdeveloped role. Tech package, led by Emmanuel Soyer's smooth lensing, is pro.

Surreal closing tableau may startle viewers who didn't pay attention to the film's subtext.

Boyd van Hoeij // Variety