Are beauty salons the same in every culture, a place where sports and politics are never discussed, while births, deaths, love affairs and menopause come under microscopic scrutiny?

The stylists and mostly female customers in Beirut's Si Belle Salon bond over those common concerns between clips and manicures and leg-waxing with the sticky caramel they cook over a gas flame. The world outside might be run by harsh, disapproving men, but inside the parlor the staff and clientele feel liberated to be themselves.

Nadine Labaki, who capably wrote and directed the film, also stars as Layale, the lovely young owner of the shop. A devout Christian embroiled in an ill-advised affair with a married man, Layale scarcely notices the handsome, flirtatious policeman just outside her door. Surely he's not giving her all those traffic tickets just because of her erratic driving?

Yasmine Al Masri plays a Muslim bride-to-be who goes to comic lengths to conceal the fact that she's not a virgin. Gisele Aouad is a gaudy, menopausal actress, so terrified of her young competition that she fakes menstruation. Sihame Haddad glows with gentle warmth as a kindly seamstress who has rejected romance in order to care for her batty old sister. Joanna Moukarzel suggests a taboo secret life in the role of a boyish shampoo specialist. There's hardly a false moment from any of the mostly amateur actors.

The episodic ensemble tale doesn't build to a dramatic climax, but it weaves a colorful, poignant tapestry of character relationships. The film notes Muslim and Christian double standards in passing, but like the recent Israeli charmer "The Band's Visit," it ignores political turbulence to focus on universal humanist values. The multigenerational cast members have one foot in Western modernity and the other in male-dominated tradition. "Caramel" is a bittersweet treat.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186