By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 17, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s easy to see why Tarek (Rami Doueiri), the rascally teenage hero of West Beirut, walks around wearing a look of barely suppressed delight. It’s 1975, and his city is being torn in two by a war he couldn’t give less of a damn about. The battle has something to do with the Christians and the Muslims (you’d have no idea from the movie why they were ever in conflict), yet for Tarek, war, in a word, means freedom: no school, no responsibility, the right to wander the streets scarfing falafel and searching for a place to develop the Super-8 home-movie footage that he and his friend have shot of a local woman with big hair and a short skirt. (And you thought Westernization was all about McDonald’s.)

Ziad Doueiri, the writer-director of West Beirut (as well as the lead actor’s older brother), shares in his hero’s delight. He understands the way that urban warfare could look like nothing so much as a vacation to a brazen adolescent with an instinct for troublemaking. Doueiri, after immigrating to the U.S., began his career working as a cameraman for Quentin Tarantino, but West Beirut feels closer in spirit to the Louis Malle of Murmur of the Heart. The film’s most resonant pleasure is the thrill Doueiri takes in ripping the veil off of contemporary Arab life, viewing it as something funky and casual and cosmopolitan. West Beirut does meander a bit, yet it has a fractious, clear-eyed fusion of comedy, innocence, romance, and sudden danger, and, in its portayal of Tarek’s parents (Joseph Bou Nassar and Carmen Lebbos), the film becomes a haunting testimonial to the fact that war in the Middle East isn’t just a matter of ideology and death. War is also a peaceful, normal home with a Molotov cocktail tossed into the living room. A-