Not quite the class war
Mohamed El-Assyouti finds Abla Kamel far from convincing in Awdat Al-Nadla
Summer saw the release of four films -- Good News Production's two star vehicles ' Imaret Yakoubian (The Yacoubian Building) and Halim, veteran producer Hussein El-Qala's Awqat Faragh (Leisure) and 'An Al-'Ishq Wal Hawa (Of Love and Infatuation), a collaboration between producer Hisham Abdel-Khaleq, director Kamla Abu Zekri, script writer Tamer Habib and actor Ahmed El-Saqqa -- each of which challenged the decade-long dominance of the box office of escapist comedies. So far, with the delayed release of a Mohamed Saad vehicle, six comedies have been competing with only the Abla Kamel vehicle, Awdat Al-Nadla (Return of the Scoundrel), released early in July, making any kind of showing.
Abla Kamel first attracted attention playing opposite comedian Mohamed Sobhi in the stage hit Wighat Nazar (Point of View), and then in the television series Lan A'ish fi Gilbab Abi (I Won't Live in My Father's Gown) before she starred opposite Mohamed Saad in Al-Limbi (2002), the biggest grossing film in the recent wave of comedies. She played a small part in Al-Limbi 's sequel Elli Bali Balak (You Know Who I Mean, 2003), and has appeared in three other comedies since, consolidating her screen persona of the poor woman with a strong character and a penchant for petty crime.
Awdat Al-Nadla, like Kamel's other films, is produced by the El-Sobki brothers, and is directed by Said Hamid, who was behind Sa'idi fil Gamaa Al-Amrikiya (An Upper Egyptian at the American University in Cairo, 1998), the film that initiated the new wave of comedy.
The film follows a married couple, Istiftah (Abla Kamel) and Gi'bel (Ezzat Abu Auf), burglars from Izbit Al-Quroud (an actual shanty neighbourhood the name of which literally means the Monkeys' Farm). When Istiftah is falsely accused of murder her husband divorces her and she spends 20 years in prison, never knowing what has happened to her infant son. Released, she endeavours to be reunited with her son who has been raised thinking that his mother is his father's new wife (Ghada Abdel-Raziq). Istiftah's ex-husband managed, during her imprisonment, to become a wealthy businessman.
Istiftah manages to convince her son, Ahmed (Ahmed Samir), and his step-mother, that she is his father's sister who has spent time in prison for having killed her unfaithful husband. She moves in with the family, setting the scene for a series of what are intended as humorous episodes, contrasting the habits of the wealthy with those of the poor. Do not, however, expect the kind of humour presented in Jean Renoir's classic Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932). Renoir's masterpiece shows the advantages of the vagabond over codified bourgeois life, with Boudu exposing the hypocrisy of the middle classes. Not so in the case of Al-Nadlah, where any attempt to undermine social propriety is superficial, uncritical, and lacking the sincerity of a Renoir or a Charlie Chaplin.
The title Awdat Al-Nadlah (Return of the Scoundrel) suggests that this will be a revenge piece and the protagonist's name, Istiftah El-Nasser, perhaps makes an allusion to the infitah or Open Door policy initiated by President Sadat, which allowed some of the underprivileged to rise exponentially economically and socially while many others were trampled underfoot. (Tellingly, Gi'bal tells her mother that she should go and live in Madinet El-Sadat and never return to embarrass him). Scriptwriter Bilal Fadl's conception of the characters and the performance of Abla Kamel and Abu Auf are so insincere that any possibility of emotional bonding is sacrificed for the sake of one-line jokes. Similar films by Fadl -- such as Sa'ie Bahr (Sea Tramp) and Sayed El-Atefi (Sayed the Sentimental), in which Kamel also starred -- demonstrate the same brand of exploitation of subject for easy laughs.
The son paints, listens to Louis Armstrong, plays tennis and basketball, jet-skies and plays keyboard with the Egyptian band Wust Al-Balad, thus providing three occasions for them to sing a "Ein Ya La Lali", based on an Upper Egyptian folk ballad about the "estranged". He is also an Internet junkie and in love. His step mother works out and forms a charity to care for homeless dogs and cats. They are situations that allow for "funny" visuals of Kamel -- veiled throughout the film -- sharing in these middle class activities.
The son also has a philosophy tutor from whom Istiftah learns a smattering of ethics which leads her to curb any vengeful impulse. In one remarkable scene, however, she complains about the wrongdoings of her ex-husband to a police officer who, standing in front of a photo of the president, admits that there is not much he can do since the chain of corruption in which Gi'bal is a link may reach too far for him to deal with.
The philosophy teacher (Ahmed Ratib) and the police officer (Fathi Abdel-Wahhab) are not the only minor characters used to flash some relatively more profound ideas at the audience, only to push them into the background. Other characters include the prostitute neighbour (Aida Riyad) and faithful friend of Istiftah's, who is now crippled and sells phone sex, and Gi'bal's mother (Magda El-Khateeb), whose husbands keep getting younger and younger. To complete the void claim that the film is a comic mediation on the meaning of motherhood, the film's final credits announce that it is dedicated to the "artist-mother", the late singer and actress Huda Sultan. Yet there is no obvious reference to Huda Sultan in the film, which contains songs by Abdel-Muttilib, Shadia, Warda, Amr Diab and Abdel-Basit Hamouda. Also, there is nothing that makes Sultan more of a mother-figure in the cinema than Amal Zayed, Amina Rizq, Zuzu Nabil, Shadia or Faten Hamama, all of whom played archetypal mothers on screen.
Hassan El-Seifi's Sahibat Al-'Isma (She Who Has the Right to Divorce, 1956), starring Ismail Yassin, Tahia Karioka and Zeinat Sedqi, also has a working class mother working as a nanny in order to raise her son who has been adopted by her husband's upper class wife. However, while the latter discovers what is going on, poisons the son and frames the mother, the up-beat ending of Awdit Al-Nadla has Istiftah and her son's step-mother reconciled, suggesting that today's society has engineered a hybridisation between a sterile upper class, with its social and cultural pretensions, and a fertile underprivileged class which, lacking polish or education, is capable of forgiveness and compassion.