Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 July 2008
Issue No. 907
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Life at the cabaret

A new Egyptian version of the 1970s film Cabaret offers a similar mix of moral decadence and economic hardship, writes Hani Mustafa

Click to view caption
Khaled El-Sawi in Cabaret

While there are no Nazis, there is a bit of terrorism, and though there is no moral laxity, there is a lot of moral rigour. The Egyptian version of the film Cabaret bears only the faintest resemblance to the original, which, starring the American actress and singer Liza Minnelli, won eight Oscars in 1973, the same year that Coppola's film The Godfather won three.

The original film version of Cabaret depicted a Berlin cabaret in the 1930s and offered a glimpse of the economic problems that paved the way for the Nazi takeover of Germany. The new Egyptian version, while less dramatic, offers insights into contemporary society and economic hardship through the lives of the employees and customers of a Cairo club.

Sameh Abdel-Aziz, the film's director, has previously made light comedies, including Ahlam Al-Fata Al-Taesh (Dreams of a Reckless Boy) and Asad wa-arba' Qitat (A Lion and Four Cats). However, in this film Abdel-Aziz and scriptwriter Ahmed Abdallah stray from a simple comedy format. Set in a nightclub during a single night, the film follows the fortunes of employees and customers alike, though, given the many storylines that result, the film can sometimes become difficult to follow.

There is sibling rivalry, for example, between the club's nasty, but pious, owner and his good-hearted, but decadent, brother. There is also a dose of working-class distress in the shape of the story of a young woman working in the club as a dancer in order to take care of her ailing mother.

Another young woman, the victim of a rape, arrives at the club to ask for a job and then discovers she cannot stomach the place. The club's bouncer, played by Mohamed Lutfi, offers a good imitation of Marlon Brando, complete with husky voice and death wish. Of the film's many subplots, one seems to dominate, this having to do with the story of Ali Allam, a pious waiter played by an avuncular Ahmed Bedeir, who manages, if accidentally, to dissuade a terrorist (played by Fathi Abdel-Wahab) from blowing up the club.

The film starts with a view of Allam praying, clearly presenting him as a pious man. From here, the audience is introduced to the club's owner, Fouad, who chides his brother Khamis (Maged El-Kedwani) shown drinking at the bar. Only later in the film is it made clear that Khamis is a compulsive gambler, and that he has had to sell his share in the club to his ruthless brother.

The brothers are exact opposites of each other. Fouad neither drinks, gambles, nor mixes with the club's customers. Instead, he sits behind the glass windows of his office watching the floor of the club and sipping orange juice. On the night on which the film is set, Fouad is making arrangements to take his family to Mecca for an off-season pilgrimage.

Layla, a dancer and waitress, is a young woman from a humble background who is forced to work at the club in order to support her sick and ageing mother. She is ashamed of her job, and she keeps it a secret from her family. When the mother dies, her coffin is shown passing in front of the club, and, in a melodramatic scene, Layla addresses her mother's coffin directly, saying that she never wanted her mother to see her working in such a place.

The film contains a lot of tears and suffering, and there is a general atmosphere of doom. However, it is also perhaps surprisingly well-made. While the film's moralising is possibly a little excessive, the editing is slick and the acting impressive.

Had Cabaret been less complicated to follow, it could have been a genuinely entertaining film.

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