Synopsis: The story focuses on the problems of several women in modern day Beirut. There's Layale (Nadine Labaki), who runs a beauty parlor with her friends, Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) and Rima (Joanna Moukarzel). Layale is having a secret affair with a married man and is miserable because of it. Nisrine is engaged to a fellow from a very conservative Muslim family, and has to find a way to cover up the fact that she lost her virginity in a previous relationship.
Rima is attracted to women. And their regular customer, Jamale (Giséle Aouad), is a former actress and divorcée who's having a hard time growing old gracefully. And then there's Rose (Sihame Haddad), a kind, elderly tailor who has sacrificed her entire life in order to care for her mentally ill older sister, Lili (Aziza Semaan).
Rosa begins falling for one of her customers, a soft-spoken bachelor her own age named Charles (Dimitri Staneofski). At the same time, a shy policeman named Youssef (Adel Karam), starts taking an interest in Layale.
As personal dramas develop, Caramel becomes a study of the pain, pleasure, and contradictions of love and beauty.
The Good: While Caramel contains universal themes of love, director Nadine Labaki also gives the viewer a look at other women's issues in modern Beirut. A much more cosmopolitan city that it was during the 80's, we see images of women free to live independently and own businesses. Lebanon isn't a country we hear much about in the news these days (particularly if you happen to be living in the US), and it's refreshing to see a film from that region of the world.
Yet Labaki cleverly shows us that there are still some lingering political/social restraints that women must contend with. But instead of giving us an angry, in-your-face political piece that's meant to make the viewer feel guilty, Labaki makes the point that being in (or out of) love is the biggest underlying struggle in this particular story. She asserts that it is the complications stemming from romantic relationships that can cause a woman pain, while social and political issues only serve as annoyances that make the situation harder to deal with in varying degrees.
Labaki's cast is also very strong. Everyone in the film looks like a down-to-earth person you could encounter in everyday life. The characters' roles are clear, yet the performances are natural. Nobody over-acts.
The Bad: The character arcs of the protagonists didn't seem complete. They all had fascinating histories, and their individual storylines developed nicely. But then, the movie ends.
It's unclear as to how their problems are ever resolved. Layale, as the central character, seems to warm up to the nice policeman Youssef. But we're not quite sure if that ever happens. I suppose a somewhat ambiguous ending might have been Labaki's goal, but the film could been more satisfying with a clearer sense of closure.
Who would like this movie: Caramel is for you if you like foreign films or if you're in the mood for a chick flick. This film is aimed squarely at women, and deals with a lot of stuff that most guys probably won't be interested in (like waxing and pedicures). I'd also recommend this to those who have an interest in modern, middle-class life in the middle east, particularly in Beirut. Just to be safe, I'd urge the viewer to do a little reading on Lebanese culture and history before watching.
I'm not sure how accurately Caramel reflects the current situation in Beirut, but it does well to make the point that romantic relationships are tough on everyone regardless of what part of the world we come from.