Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Bearable kitsch

Mohamed El-Assyouti sees Dawoud Abdel-Sayed return to form


Periods of political turmoil tend to invite a great deal of soul searching. In Eastern Europe Russia's 1968 invasion of Prague provoked much questioning of cultural and social values, providing, eventually, the background for Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Similarly, the 1967 Arab defeat resulted in many hand-wringing cultural projects, including the cinematic ventures of Dawoud Abdel-Sayed.

It is no coincidence, surely, that Dawoud Abdel- Sayed's latest film Muwatin wa Mukhbir wa Harami (Citizen, Detective, Thief) invites comparisons with Philp Kaufman's 1987 adaptation of Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In Abdel-Sayed's film novelist Selim Seifeddin (Khaled Abul-Naga), whose name means "unbroken sword of religion," the citizen of the title, maintains a physically satisfying relationship with Madiha (Rola Mahmoud). It is, however, only when he embarks on a rather more spiritual liaison with Hayat (Hind Sabri) -- whose name means life -- that he is able to complete his novel. Hayat, in the meantime, is the mistress of the thief of the title (Shaaban Abdel-Rehim), introduced to him by Fathi (Salah Abdallah), the detective. Echoes of Tomas's story in The Unbearable Lightness of Being are audible everywhere.

Muwatin wa Mukhbir wa Harami opens with the detective, who knows the minutest details of all the characters' lives, and the thief speaking a common language, one the citizen fails to understand. Two decades later, though, when the film ends, communication is perfectly plausible: it is a transformation that lies at the heart of the film.

The central plot revolves around Hayat's theft of a manuscript of one of Selim Seifeddin's novel. She hands it over to Sherif El-Margoushi, the thief, who has a passion for the more moralistic strain of detective novels. "How come your main character Safiya has an affair with two men yet ends the novel without being paralysed or going blind?" he asks Seif.

In the ensuing contretemps the thief burns the novel, and the novelist pokes him in the eye. Yet the result of this inflicting of mutual harm is that the writer subsequently achieves popularity with works that take on board the thief's moralism, and the thief receives a far superior artificial eye -- incidentally from Geneva, the city in which Kundera's characters take refuge -- to replace his own damaged organ.

This conflict between the novelist and the thief occupies most of the film's 135-minutes, and is eventually resolved when the son of the thief and the daughter of novelist-citizen, both products of their fathers' marriage to the other's one time mistress, fall in love and get married, a complicated piece of miscegenation referred to in the song that closes the film -- cats and mice get married, and have children together.

Abdel-Sayed has been criticised by many for jumping onto the commercially lucrative band-wagon of Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, the phenomenally popular singer. Yet the densely layered sound track includes Wagner, Orf, Bizet, Umm Kulthoum, Abdel-Halim Hafez and, typically for an Abdel-Sayed film, a Rageh Dawoud score alongside Abdel-Rehim's six songs. The calculation of the juxtapositions is further underlined by a narrative voice that commentates on the unfolding action with a detached irony.

Ahmed Gaber's sound mixing and Mona Rabi's editing are almost flawless, and Samir Bahzan's cinematography is remarkable. With Muwatin Abdel- Sayed has returned to form, pulling off that most difficult of tasks: a film that directs its social and cultural criticism with a forensic precision, while appealing to a mass audience.

Within the film mainstream commercial entertainment becomes a vehicle for such criticism as Muwatin dramatically embeds the kitsch so as to allow it to interrogate and criticise itself: with the citizen's original manuscript destroyed, redemption of sorts -- communication -- becomes a possibility, and a kitschy survival is preferred to the surrender to oblivion.

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