“Costa Brava, Lebanon” Film Review: Trying to Escape Toxicity

Costa Brava, Lebanon

Costa Brava, Lebanon opens with a title card that reads, “Lebanon, in the near future.” Yet, although the film ostensibly depicts an apocalyptic crisis, it may as well take place in our current-day world. Director Mounia Akl blends eerie dystopia with everyday domesticity, producing a compelling family drama about environmental destruction. 

Costa Brava, Lebanon centers on the Badri family. Walid (Saleh Bakri), a former activist turned homesteader, is its patriarch. He met his wife Souraya (Nadine Labaki), a famous singer, at a protest in Beirut during their youth. After the city became uninhabitable due to overflowing garbage, Walid moved his family, including daughters Tala (Nadia Charbel) and Reem (Geana and Seana Restom), to the hills, where they have lived off-the-grid for the past eight years. However, when Reem wakes up one morning to strangers in the valley, it seems that the problems of Beirut have finally caught up to the Badris. To alleviate Lebanon’s trash problem, the government has come to construct a toxic landfill on the family’s land, complete with a statue of the president. 

As the situation worsens, the Badri family begins to fracture. The film shines in its portrayal of Souraya and Walid’s fraught marriage. Souraya misses the excitement of her life in Beirut, while Walid, who has long given up on their youthful activism, refuses to leave their countryside home. Their eldest daughter Tala finds herself in the throes of teenage self-discovery, encouraged by her ailing yet spirited grandmother who serves as her role model. Meanwhile, the younger Reem sees herself as the only thing holding her family together. She has developed an obsessive habit of counting aloud, convinced that this will prevent catastrophe. Although Tala’s arc is somewhat underdeveloped, Reem is a particularly complex character, illustrating how young children absorb the trauma of their parents. 

As government workers begin construction on the landfill, environmental destruction seeps into the family’s ordinary life. In one scene, the sisters’ innocent games are interrupted by a sudden explosion from the construction behind them. Later, the family watches as the heaps of garbage are set ablaze, their home electricity flickers off, and their faucets drip blood red. These shots imbue the film with a subtle sense of horror. Yet there are plenty of moments of beauty to be found in Costa Brava. Late in the film, one character experiences a vision where the endless trash bags are transformed into ghostly lights, floating into the night sky. 

The characters of Costa Brava are constantly talking about Beirut — what they suffered there, what they miss about it, and whether to return. Yet except for brief glimpses in the beginning of the film, we never see the city. We only hear it, in the form of protesters’ shouts and radio voice-overs, broadcast over the Badri’s scenic homestead. This contrast underscores the family’s isolation, tucked away in idyllic hills as the commotion slowly rises from Beirut — until it ultimately arrives at their doorstep. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Souraya and Walid were both former activists who left their lives of protest in Beirut for the mountains. How do these two characters represent different attitudes towards civil resistance? Do you agree with Walid that “protests never changed anything”? 
  2. What is Costa Brava’s critique of the Lebanese government? How might the film relate to real-world events in Lebanon, such as the Beirut port explosion of August 2020? 
  3. What is the symbolism of the garbage crisis in this film? How does this point towards larger failures in the Middle East, both environmental and otherwise?
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