A young man seeks to uncover his past history in a tale rooted in Lebanon.



According to my dictionary, the rather obscure word that gives this film its title means a dweller from beyond the mountains and thus a foreigner or barbarian. It can, I suppose, be applied to the central character here even though when the film starts this young man, the 24-year-old Rabih, does not appreciate his situation. He believes that he was born blind and is being brought up by his mother, Samar, who is a widow, with help from her brother Hisham. However, Rabih is a musician attending at a local school for the blind in Lebanon and, being one of a group invited to perform abroad, he seeks a passport. In doing so he discovers that his I.D. papers are bogus and Samar, unable to help, acknowledges for the first time that he is not her real son but an adopted child. Lack of evidence accompanied by downright lies make him realise that he does not in truth know who he is or where he came from - in effect he is now a foreigner in what he had regarded as his homeland and he makes determined efforts to track down anyone who can help confirm his identity.


Although Barakat Jabbour, here making his first screen appearance in the role of Ribah, is himself a blind musician, the musical aspect while important is not central to the film. This is no sentimental tale about a young blind artist, but some kind of allegory about Lebanon itself and the impact of that country's civil war. As such, Tramontane is a film with a relatively unfamiliar setting and one that appeals in consequence. Yet Rabih's search to uncover his true self, which provides the surface narrative, does come to feel rather stretched at 105 minutes (there is nothing here akin to the complex discoveries that fuelled the drama in another quest film, Denis Villeneuve's brilliant Incendies from 2010). 


It has been suggested that symbolism is in play as Rabih's investigations enable him to break through his blindness to see the truth about himself and one feels that his story is meant to reflect Lebanon's need to come to terms with its own history. Nevertheless, ultimately this is a film that seems to suggest the need to go along with lies in order to live. This is interesting, but you probably need to be Lebanese or well aware of the relevant history to appreciate all of the implications.


To draw in outsiders the best approach would have been to use simple, direct storytelling in order to make the personal story compelling in its own right. But, unfortunately, the writer/director, Vatche Boulghourjian, favours an arty style making much play with dark scenes in the shadows and shots that deliberately put part of the image out of focus (this is the more tiresome because of the space that arises from opting to shoot in 'Scope). That Tramontane doesn't fully connect for outsiders is confirmed by its conclusion, a protracted musical number echoing the film's start but meant by then to be more meaningful as its lyrics ask for an answer to bring relief. In Ken Loach's underrated Fatherland (1986) a song concluded the film brilliantly capturing the spirit and essence of the piece. Perhaps only a Lebanese would feel the same way about the ending here. Even so, this is an honourable and unusual film.




Cast: Barakat Jabbour, Julia Kassar, Toufic Barakat, Raymond Haddouni, Nassim Khodr, Odette Makhlouf, Georges Dias, Raymonde Saade Azar.


Dir Vatche Boulghourjian, Pro Caroline Oliveira and Georges Schoucair, Screenplay Vatche Boulgourjian, Ph James Lee Phelan, Art Dir Nadine Ghanem, Ed Nadia Ben Rachid, Music Cynthia Zaven, Costumes Lara Khamis.


Rebus Film Production/Abbout Productions/Le Bureau/Film Factory/Sunnyland Film-Arrow Films.
105 mins. Lebanon/France/Germany/United Arab Emirates/Qatar/USA/Italy/Jordan. 2016. Rel: 22 September 2017. Cert. U.