A mundane spectrum
Briefly reviewing the career of filmmaker Osama Fawzi, Hani Mustafa sees his latest offering in context
In the last two decades of Egyptian cinema, Osama Fawzi made two of the most remarkable films. In 1996, he made 'Afarit Al-Asfalt (Demons of the Asphalt), a unique take on the world of microbus drivers in Cairo, written by the novelist and scriptwriter Mustafa Zikri and starring Mahmoud Hemeidah and Gamil Ratib. It had a variety of strongly built characters, with the drama emerging out of the complex, enmeshed relationships between those characters. The script sought to uncover those relations gradually, revealing layers of connection between the characters in turn. At one point the viewer discovers that almost all the main characters have secret affairs with each other, with the grassroots family at the centre held together not by common morality but rather by a sort of wistful desire to live together.
In Gannet Al-Shayatin (The Devils' Paradise), directed by Fawzi in 2002 -- also written by Zikri and produced, with remarkable artistic courage, by Hemeida -- was based on a novel by the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado; and where 'Afarit Al-Asfalt was more or less realistic, Gannet Al-Shayatin was clearly not; it presented, rather, a sort of cinematic philosophy of death centred on three socially rootless young men, hedonistic and more or less completely fearless, who dominate the action. But there are many dramatic types besides, none of them necessary reflecting social reality. The main character is a dead man named Tabl (Mahmoud Hemeida) who only ever appears on screen as a corpse. He belongs to an upper echelon of society but, long before he dies, he disowns his class and shares his life with the sub proletariat, as it were, who now share his death with him as a result.
Fawzi made a qualitative shift in his third and fourth films, edging away from the multilayered depth and relentless art of his first two films and closer to the norms of commercial cinema to take a somewhat societal approach. Bahebb El-Sima (I Love Cinema), a sort of Coptic Cairo version of Cinema Paradisio set in the neighbourhood of Shubra, written by Hani Fawzi and produced in 2004, proved remarkably more successful at the box office. This is due mostly to the fact that it is far more accessible and socially oriented, the sort of critique of religious fundamentalism and the medieval mentality that prohibits art which was overdone cinematically all through the 1990s. Despite critical acclaim, which highlighted the boldness of the approach, the script's directness makes this an artistically weak film.
Likewise the present offering, now showing: Bil'alwan Al-Tabi'iyya (True Colours), also by Hani Fawzi: it is similar in content to the previous film, occupying the space in which religion and art play out their potential conflict. The film opens with a young man named Youssef (Karim Qassem) studying for the thanawiyya amma (secondary school certificate) exams. As in Bahebb El-Sima, a narrator explains -- with a mundane directness -- the details of Youssef's life: the fact that Youssef's father is dead (perhaps to escape life with his mother); said mother (Intissar) lacks the usual capacity for motherliness -- something that becomes obvious in her reaction during the scene where Youssef attempts to give her a Mother's Day gift.
All too typically for middle-class Egyptians, his mother wants him to study medicine in order to become a doctor. And once again, religiosity is among the more prominent details characterising this small family made up of mother and son. It is the connection between the middle- class family and religion that forms the substance of the film: much as the father in Bahebb El-Sima is angry with the fact that his little boy went to the cinema in the company of his uncle, here the mother screams hysterically on seeing the letter that arrives from university containing the news that her son was accepted only in the faculty of fine arts. Once Youssef goes to university, the mother should disappear; but the script turns her into a fantastical ghost that accompanies Youssef, most often screaming her disapproval as his religious conscience, in many scenes during his time as a student and especially while his ideas and beliefs encounter the world of art -- the issue of painting nudes, for example.
The director and scriptwriter employ fantasy to a seemingly excessive degree in order to present cliched -- not to say moralistic -- ideas without being accused of naivete or superficiality. Fantasy is after all a mental approach to reality. Yet this ruse does not work most of the time. In one particularly annoying scene two groups of students -- male and female -- play loud western and eastern music, respectively, in order to break the monotony while working on their course projects in different halls of the university. To which a bearded, fundamentalist students responds by reciting the azan in the middle of the clamour. And as if this is too subtle, Fawzi has a young monk entering the hall with a bell to make his own point. This is perhaps the worst scene in the entire film, and bears testimony to the two- dimensional approach to which Fawzi has fallen prey since Bahebb El-Sima. But it is not the only aspect of the "fantastical".
Caricatures of art teachers abound, with the dean (Hassan Kami), widely known as Dr Kentuky, requiring students to copy his paintings in order to sell many "original" copies of each and thus make money. There is also the costumes professors, who wears implausible folk clothes and never stops laughing. With only two exceptions, however, none of these characters have any depth. The script does not endeavour to present or develop them in any convincing way. Only Dr Naim (Mahmoud El-Lozy) and the student teacher Laila (Ferial Youssef) have any substance to speak of. Naim, who bikes to campus wearing shorts, is initially presented as a caricature. But he eventually emerges as Youssef's wise mentor who helps him through his crises. Laila, a coquette who never tires of parading her charms to the students, presents Youssef with the dilemma of obsessive desire, which he can only get past with the help of others -- they have an abortive affair in which the wisdom of Naim is repeatedly replicated in one or another of Youssef's colleagues as they help him break up with Laila.
The women in the film are more or less superficial. The character of Youssef's quiet, religious girlfriend, Ilham (Youssra EL-Lozy), for example, does not come through sufficiently despite the dramatic interest of the developments she goes through. After having sexual relations with Youssef, she is tormented by feelings of guilt which drive her to wear hijab, then niqab -- another cliched trajectory, if one may say so -- until she disappears without a trace halfway through the film. Another girl, played by Farah Youssef, a wilful rebel with a strong character, is somewhat more convincing as a representative of womanhood.
Acting is not the film's strongest element. The hero, Karim Qassem, was not as good as he was four years ago in Mohammad Mustafa's vastly successful Awqat Faragh (Free Time). As Youssef's colleague Ali, Ramzi Lenar is occasionally competent but for the most part tends to overact. Farah Youssef is more or less effortlessly convincing, but her performance fails to stand out in the middle of everything else. In the end the acting, much like other aspects of the film, raises questions about the point of the project as a whole. It seems the film sets out to critique religious repression and the spread of fundamentalism that has brought it about. Yet it also ends up critiquing the faculty of arts itself: a sort of mental asylum or hell, with madmen or demons playing the central role. And this approach to the faculty, confusingly for the viewer, gives credence to the fundamentalist position.
The conflict between art and religion is far more effectively depicted in Carol Reed's 1960 The Agony and the Ecstasy, starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II. The film chronicles one of the main shifts in the history of art, when Michelangelo paints the interior of the Sistine Chapel in a secular style, including nudes -- a triumph for art. What does Fawzi's film have to say?