Lila Says

2004, Movie, NR, 89 mins


Lebanese-born writer and director Ziad Doueiri's second film is a striking departure from his feature debut, WEST BEIRUT (1998), set in the war-torn Beirut of his youth. Adapted from Lila dit ca, a controversial novel in the form of a memoir, purportedly scrawled in two notebooks by a North African teenager credited pseudonymously as "Chimo," it's an uplifting fable about the power of hope cloaked in the conventions of high-toned smut: the girlish but X-rated talk, panting shots of bare-legged, underage sugar-cookie Lila (Vahina Giocante) on her bicycle and the leering threat of sexual violence spun as scorching social commentary. Nineteen-year-old Chimo (Mohammed Khouas) lives with his embittered, hardworking mother (Carmen Lebbos) in the ironically named Shady Grove, a rundown, treeless Marseilles suburb dominated by disenfranchised Muslim immigrants. Though clearly smarter than his best friends, Mouloud (Kareem Ben Haddou), Big Jo (Hamid Dkhissi) and Bakary (Lotfi Chakri), Chimo has surrendered to peer pressure to stick with his own kind and stop dreaming about bettering himself. Though his English teacher encouraged Chimo to apply to a government-supported writer's college in Paris, promising help and references, he refused and slid instead into the aimless and defeated rhythms of ghetto life. Directionless, bored and perpetually broke, Chimo and his buddies hang around the local cafe, play pinball and drive around in Big Jo's taxi until blonde, blue-eyed, 16-year-old Lila appears, her short skirts and low-cut tops raising temperatures long before she sidles up to Chimo and boldly asks if he'd like a look at her privates. A Polish Catholic orphan who's just moved in with her fat, crazy aunt (Edmonde Franchi), Lila ignores her neighbors' catcalls, enraging them with her haughty brazenness. But she teases Chimo with frank stories of her fantastic erotic exploits while their own sexually charged relationship remains relatively chaste. Her attentions awaken Chimo's buried hope that his future might hold more than prejudice and poverty, but place Lila in the line of fire. Perhaps to counteract the suggestion that Lila dit ca looked an awful lot like a collection of nymphet fantasies, Doueiri cannily positions both Lila and Chimo as prisoners of circumstance and narrowly defined social expectations. He's an obvious victim of bigotry, but she's imprisoned by her suffocating preoccupation with sex, coupled with a dangerously immature understanding of its power. The story's message is less than profound, but it's vividly delivered. (In French, with subtitles) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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