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Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: A Conversation with Nadine Labaki; A Conversation with Khlaed Mouzanar; At the Festivals; Trailer.

CARAMEL, like its name suggests, is a sweet confection that follows the lives of a group of Lebanese beauty salon workers as they cope with various romantic quandaries in modern-day Beirut.

Written, directed by and starring Nadine Labaki the film has already become a hit on the festival circuit and deserves to find a strong following during its cinematic release.

Beauty shop owner Layale (Nadine Labaki) is too caught up in her hopeless affair with a married man to recognise the amorous advances of the traffic warden patrolling the beat nearby.

Around her, meanwhile, are a similarly convivial group of co-workers and clients, including Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), a non-virginal Muslim bride-to-be who is desperate to conceal her indiscretion, Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), an aspiring actress still clinging to her youth, and Rose (Sihame Haddad), an elderly seamstress whose attempts to find a life beyond work are constantly thwarted by her mad sister.

The caramel of the title refers to the toffee-like goo used to wax the salon’s customers and serves as an appropriate metaphor for the bittersweet stories that ensue. Fortunately, though, just as the caramel is applied sparingly, so too is the sentiment as Labaki never overdoes the schmaltz.

Rather, her film serves as a fun and occasionally sobering insight into a different culture that also succeeds in shining a light into a city that’s too often depicted in the news for the wrong reasons.

The performances, too, are charming and sometimes genuinely poignant. Labaki, in particular, is luminous as Layale and proves herself to be a talent to watch for the future, while the likes of Aouad and Haddad create flesh and blood characters that are worth investing time in.

In terms of direction, Caramel also bares favourable comparison to the shooting and narrative style of Spain’s Pedro Almodovar, which only makes time spent in its company more appealing.

At a time when blockbusters take centre stage with varying degrees of success, Caramel offers a prime example of why some of the better film experiences lie just off the mainstream, while offering some valuable insight into other parts of the world. It’s well worth making an appointment.

Certificate: PG
Running time: 1h 36mins
UK DVD Release: September 8, 2008 (through Momentum Pictures)