Eyes wide open
Min Nazret Ein (At First Sight, literally in the glance of an eye) -- one of three films released this Lesser Bairam -- offers Mohamed El-Assyouti less than meets the eye
Akram (Amr Waked) makes wedding videos, and his hobby is to tear eyes, lips and hair styles from magazines and paste them on his computer to create the face of his dream woman. When he finally settles on one face -- Mona Zaki's -- and throws away all the rest he is commissioned to film a wedding, at which the bride turns out to be Mona Zaki, incarnation of his imaginary love. In a single day he wins her heart and replaces the groom.
The moral of script-writer, set designer and director Ihab Lam'i's debut feature appears concise enough -- follow your instincts and dare to challenge society, particularly those pressures made manifest in arranged marriages.
Lam'i employs the simplest techniques. The dialogue is sparse, with key lines repeated. The two-character scenes consist largely of extreme close-ups punctuated by a single song which has been playing for weeks now on music channels. With such a basic idea and minimalist presentation the film may seem promising. It might at least have suggested a possible strategy in tackling the basic dilemma facing mainstream filmmakers -- how do you make a simple, low-budget film that is sufficiently developed not to be reduced to a two-hour commercial advertising the lead actor? Unfortunately Lam'i overloads his film's 85 minutes with largely superficial material.
With the plot depicting a single event one might expect to get to know rather more about the lead characters than Lam'i's truncated characterisation allows. That Min Nazret Ein is among one of few films that allots screen time to a female role makes this lack doubly disappointing. Lam'i muffs the opportunity to explore how an empowered female character might behave in today's society -- a recurrent theme in recent cinema from Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock vehicles to the works of Jane Campion, Ang Lee and Quentin Tarantino.
Sarah -- the bride -- has little beyond a single astonished expression to offer the camera, and her dialogue is so sparse she becomes practically inconsequential to the development of events. Had the script framed the whole plot as the fantasy of a deluded Dr Frankenstein Zaki's robotic performance and sketchy character might have made some sense. As it is, what one assumes are alterations in the director's original conception of her performance are probably a result of Zaki's very apparent pregnancy. If Yasmine Abdel-Aziz's performance while similarly pregnant -- she played Mustafa Qamar's love interest in last Eid's hit, the action romance Qalb Gari' -- is anything to go by this may well not affect the success or otherwise of the film, but one cannot help but wonder what would have happened to the look of film noir had Hitchcock insisted a pregnant Vera Miles play Judy in Vertigo as originally planned.
Due to Zaki's condition Lam'i restricted himself to his lead actress's face before he finally resorted to extreme close-ups, so eventually we get little more than her eyes. As a consequence Sarah makes no substantial physical movements for the entirety of the film. In contrast Waked's character is marked by a physical dynamism -- astride his Harley Davidson for instance -- broadening the rift between Zaki's underwritten character, which emerges as passive and fatalistic, and Waked's slightly more fleshed out character.
As for Sarah's background we are told only that her parents used to work abroad where they came to know the family of Wagih, her fiancé, and that both Sarah and Wagih accepted a marriage arranged by their respective parents. It was, as Sarah explains in a single line, a transaction based on pragmatic calculations, unlike her decision to exchange grooms on her wedding night which comes across less as an impulsive act than as a willingness to resign herself to the will of the domineering Akram.
Certainly his charm and resourcefulness put Wagih to shame. When the wedding is disrupted the original groom is so clueless he simply continues to pander to his boss, one of the guests, while it is left to his rival to save the situation. Akram succeeds not only in impressing the bride but her mother (Sawsan Badr) and grandmother (Huda Sultan) as well. Wagih, who has even forgotten to call the ma'zoun (wedding officer) to complete the marriage procedure, deserves to be jilted, though his eventual ouster from the wedding throne is the result not only of Akram's designs but of the complicity of a number of well-meaning characters -- his aunt (a splendid Magda El-Khatib), who chats on the Internet and pretends she is 22; Sarah's neighbour (Maha Abu Ouf), whose hobby is to read Arsine Lupin and spy on her neighbours; Andrew (Pierre Sioufi), the wedding photographer who uses photoshop to replace the groom with Akram in the wedding photos and Nudie (Basma), Akram's assistant. And they, in turn, are abetted by fate when we suddenly discover that an adjacent wedding hall has been reserved for a single person (played by Gamil Ratib) who tells Sarah how, in her position many years ago, he was too scared to take a decision and, as a consequence, now dances alone on his wedding anniversary.
Akram, unlike his future bride, remains assertive throughout. "I'm making a film about the wedding, not just videoing it," he insists repeatedly. "I chose your eyes, lips and hair from among thousands. I saw you in my imagination before I ever saw or knew you. I love you and want to marry you."
His outspokenness and determination is repeated in the film's theme song, the source of which turns out to be the singer at the one-person party. "I had known her with my imagination before my eyes ever saw her and my heart asks one thousand questions." It is with such lyrics Min Nazret Ein attempts to evoke a romantic mood. While the song may affect some in the audience the mood needs rather more than a few repeated lines if it is to be sustained for the length of an entire feature.
If the eye is mirror for the soul, and Akram has found in Sarah his soulmate, the flatness of the characters and the lacklustre performance of Mona Zaki render their exchanged glances mostly cold and soulless.
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