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The highly anticipated Napoleon by Ridley Scott, an ambitious film starring Joaquin Phoenix as the French emperor, has made its debut in cinemas. Following a spectacular premiere in Paris, the film has arrived in Beirut today, Thursday. Its release has sparked particular interest in Lebanon, a country with little-known historical ties to the figure of Napoleon.

Ridley Scott, renowned for his cinematic epics like Gladiator and Blade Runner, presents us with Napoleon, a 2 hour and 39-minute saga traversing the tumultuous life of one of the most emblematic characters in European history. With a budget nearing $200 million, the film promises spectacular battle scenes and a focus on Napoleon’s sentimental life, particularly his relationship with Josephine, portrayed by Vanessa Kirby.

Napoleon and Lebanon: What’s the Historical Connection?

The marked interest in this film in Lebanon is partly explained by a historical link between Napoleon and the country. In 1799, during the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon sent a letter to the governor of Jaffa, expressing his support for the Christians of Lebanon. This act marked a significant moment in Franco-Lebanese relations, demonstrating Napoleon’s influence far beyond Europe.

Napoleon, known for his strategic mind and profound reflections, is often quoted in the film. Phrases like “Victory belongs to the most persevering” and “Men are better governed by their vices than by their virtues” reveal the complexity of his personality and political approach.

Although Napoleon strives to capture the essence of the Napoleonic era, it allows for artistic liberties. For instance, the film portrays Napoleon attending the execution of Marie-Antoinette, a historically inaccurate event. These deviations from real history may trouble purists but contribute to the dramatization of the narrative.

Reviews are mixed for this biopic. Some praise Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and Scott’s ambitious direction, while others lament historical inaccuracies and sometimes caricatural portrayal of the emperor.

With its arrival in Beirut, Scott’s Napoleon is not only a major cinematic event but also serves as a reminder of the historical connections between Napoleon and the Middle East. The film, though controversial, promises to be a lively topic of conversation among cinephiles and historians, revealing the many facets of Napoleon’s legacy.

Director Ridley Scott (2nd from right) actor Joaquin Phoenix (2nd from left) director of photography Darius Wolski (left) and producer Kevin J. Walsh (right) at the world premiere of the film “Napoleon” in Paris on November 14 2023.

From Saint Helena to Rabieh: A Shared Exile?

The fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte in Lebanon takes on an almost theatrical turn, where history and contemporary politics intertwine with a hint of irony. Indeed, sometimes Lebanon appears more royalist than the king himself, fervently embracing European historical figures. This tendency is playfully reflected in the nickname “NAPOLEAOUN,” a clever portmanteau of “Napoleon” and “Aoun,” referring to the former Lebanese president Michel Aoun. This nickname, often used during his tenure, serves as a symbol of a certain cult of personality, perhaps even imperial ambition within the Lebanese political context.

This analogy, though seemingly light-hearted, actually unveils deeper layers of the Lebanese political psyche. It challenges, in a sense, the famous saying by Gebran Khalil Gebran that “No man is a prophet in his own country.” Indeed, the adoption of this moniker for Michel Aoun seems to refute this assertion, suggesting that “One can indeed be a prophet in his own country.”

The parallel between Napoleon and Aoun is all the more fascinating as it juxtaposes two historical figures separated by centuries, yet united by aspirations for dominant power and, perhaps, a certain grandeur in their political ambitions. The adoption of the nickname NAPOLEAOUN serves a satirical expression, highlighting contrasts between the French emperor and the former Lebanese president while capturing the Lebanese collective imagination that oscillates between admiration and criticism.

This humorous reference is not merely an anecdote; it is embedded in a Lebanese context where history and politics often overlap, creating a landscape where past and present figures are constantly reevaluated and reinterpreted. It is in this spirit that Scott’s film Napoleon arrives in Lebanon, not just as a cinematic work, but also as a mirror reflecting the complexities and paradoxes of Lebanese society.