22 - 28 August 2002
Issue No. 600
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
The wedding gameMohamed El-Assyouti contemplates stupidity
Comedians have often been funny looking. Yet increasingly Egyptian critics take issue with hit movies whose success, they say, depends on the lead being a midget or an extremely corpulent individual. They contend that such films often cross the fine line separating light entertainment from cinema that caters to the baser instincts -- pandering to a curiosity that approaches voyeurism in Al-Limby, whose eponymous protagonist is mentally challenged. It is precisely this appetite for gawking, they say, that has made the film so successful.
This argument does not hold water, however, once the dismal box-office failure of so many other films starring carnivalesque funny men is registered. The secret of Al-Limby's success is more likely to be in the packaging, with digital technology employed to remarkable effect as much in the editing and screening (including sound) as in the advertising and publicity. More than any other element in preproduction or production, it is these factors, combined with the presence or absence of "star power", that make or break a film today.
While Al-Limby's content fails to set it apart from a wave of aflam muqawalat (contractors films) made some 15 years ago -- their only asset being the big names they starred, these films are now seen only on the Arab satellite movie channels at off-peak times of day -- its fate is likely to be different. Al-Limby, after all, is this summer's top box-office hit, grossing four million pounds in its first four days on screen. Still going strong in its second month, it may become the biggest film in Egyptian cinema to date, dethroning Al-Nazer (The Principal, 2000), which has topped the bill for several years.
The difference between 1980s "silly" and comparable fare of the past decade is one of marketing and distribution. The former had targeted the home video market, while the latter caters to teenagers whiling away the hours of the summer vacation in shopping mall multiplexes. In the 1980s films were publicised on centrefold-size wall posters and released to only a handful of shabby, inexpensive theatres, or else they went straight to video. Recent films are advertised on gigantic high-resolution billboards and released in dozens of relatively expensive multiplexes. In the case of Al-Limby, moreover, the simultaneous release of the film's soundtrack helped generate added excitement.
Such considerations should not divert attention away from the talent of newcomer Mohamed Saad, who invests his first leading role with a hyperactive physical energy especially evident in dance sequences. Saad had played a supporting role in Al-Nazer, and his character, Al-Limby, proved so popular that scriptwriter Ahmed Abdallah decided to produce another instalment, although Al-Limby is, properly speaking, not a sequel to Al-Nazer; nor is it the work of the same director or producer. That the audience claps along with Hussein El-Imam's score, sings along with Saad during his musical performances and preempts the punch lines as he delivers them, points both to the appeal of Saad's brand of comedy and to the scriptwriter's ear for dialogue.
Though viewers by and large failed to determine the connection between the film's successive scenes, the dramatic development of the film seems to mimic that of Al-Nazer. Both follow a young man's eventual assumption of grown-up responsibilities and emphasise, by way of conclusion, the importance of "modern" education in enabling future generations to avoid similar pitfalls. During his literacy exam, Al-Limby tries to cheat by looking at the exam form of an elderly man, while Al-Nazer, who inherited his father's position of school principal, has to repeat his secondary schooling when his certificate turns out to be fraudulent. Each protagonist's father wields influence over him from beyond the grave. Al-Limby goes to his father's storage room where, upon discovering a liver-sandwich street cart, the voice of his father's ghost tells him how to price the sandwiches. Similarly, Al- Nazer descends to his father's secret cellar to unearth his ancestor's literary gems.
Both heroes have a domineering mother who is eventually proposed to by a person close to the late father, played masterfully by the veteran Hassan Hosni in both film. Both heroes' sexual inexperience finds them exploited and exposed in embarrassing situations -- an element common to many comedy-star vehicles. In Al-Limby, scriptwriter Abdallah revisits notions of inherited debt and a legacy of failure through characters given names which point to the indirect influence of European culture: the name Al- Limby is the Egyptianised rendition of the name of British High Commissioner Allenby who represented the nasty face of colonial power in the 1920s; the hero's mother's name is Faransa, literally France, and the name of his stepfather-to-be is Bach.
Perhaps the fact that Al- Limby and Al-Nazer both rebel against a problematic past -- initially through alcohol and drugs, but later through love and learning -- is what enables the audience to identify with them the most. As a companion- piece, Al-Limby seems to tell us about who Al-Limby was before Al-Nazer and in this sense turns out to be a prequel to the latter. The climax of Al-Limby is the hero's extravagant wedding, after which he becomes a father himself, lives happily ever after and is seen educating his son; Al-Nazer, it may be worth noting, had introduced Al-Limby during a wedding scene.
Dramatically the wedding in Al-Limby acts as a solution to the protagonist's financial difficulties. Repeatedly failing to keep a job and constantly harassed by the police -- for walking in the street without an identification card, for renting bicycles in Sharm El-Sheikh to foreigners without a permit from the Tourism Police, for selling sandwiches in the street -- Al-Limby is unable to repay the LE20,000 he owes his grumpy landlord. His violinist friend Bach informs him that his father had kept a record of all the noqta (money gifts) he had presented to their acquaintances at their weddings. And it transpires that only by throwing a wedding, even a fake one, can Al- Limby raise the funds he requires. Holding a big wedding, the film seems to say, is the solution to anybody's financial problems: traditional codes of social solidarity dictate that people should offer newlyweds financial support.
Illiterate, inefficient, slow, stoned and drunk: the imbecile protagonist is saved by marriage. The mother, Faransa, dances at the wedding, comically brandishing huge butcher knives as she sings about the various kinds of treatment guests receive: those who pay in hundreds are at one extreme and those who give out five pound notes are at the opposite. The new rules of film-going seem to follow suit: those who can afford to pay laugh the most, while those less capable either see the films on shabby old screens scattered beyond the mall multiplexes or wait for the usual second run, weeks or months later, at open-air theatres.
Letter from the Editor
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