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Verdict: An impressive and lovely debut about female camaraderie

Rating: * * * *

Caramel is a charming, moving and contemporary story about the lives of five women living in Beirut.

Warmly received at the 2007 Cannes and Toronto film festivals, it marks the emergence of a major new talent in Lebanese cinema, the beautiful star, director and writer of this melodrama, Nadine Labaki.

Caramel completed shooting in Beirut just nine days before the beginning of the 2006 Lebanese war, but Labaki has chosen to explore the universal themes of love and female friendship rather than the volatile political unease and conflict that affects the region.

The title refers to the Middle Eastern technique of waxing using caramel, the sweet, sticky substance the girls use to wax their customers at the rundown hair and beauty salon at the centre of the film.

The salon is, of course, the perfect environment for the five women from varying generations to share their lives and confide in each other. While the focus of Caramel is on the everyday issues facing these sassy and independent women, it also explores the challenges of living in Lebanon, and the social restrictions they live under.

Labiki plays Layale, a sensual, modern Christian woman who is having an affair with a married man. She may wear cleavage-revealing apparel, but she lives at home with her parents and shares a room with her younger brother.

Layale is joined at the salon by Nisrine, a Muslim who is soon to be married and lives in fear that her fiance will discover she isn't a virgin. Tomboy Rima develops a crush on a beautiful customer who discovers a sense of freedom by chopping off all her hair, while recently divorced actress Jamale is challenged by growing older. Sweet, elderly Rose, who struggles to look after her mentally impaired sister, falls in love for the first time.

The moments these women share are fun, intimate, serious and emotional, but there is a lightness to it all. Yes, their lives are filled with difficulties, but Labaki is more interested in the melodrama of her characters' lives, looking for happy endings and presenting her vision of Beirut as a vibrant and sensual city, rather than making political statements. The result is a debut that is unexpectedly warm and delightful.

- Francesca Rudkin

Cast: Nadine Labaki, Ismal Antar, Yasmine Elmasri, Sihame Haddad

Director: Nadine Labaki

Running Time: 95 mins

Rating: PG (contains sexual references)

Screening: Rialto and Bridgeway Cinemas

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