Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1256, (30 July - 5 August 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1256, (30 July - 5 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Neither sweet nor bitter

Hani Mustafa is disappointed in filmmaker Hani Khalifa’s latest feature

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Al-Ahram Weekly

As well as being a principal subject in the literary arts, human relations are the bread and butter of drama whether in theatre, television or cinema. Filmmakers have to deal with human relations even when they are not the focus of the film. Love is perhaps the most complicated of these, an extremely complex relation affected by all kinds of factors that is the pivot of each human being’s life.

For the second time on the silver screen, filmmaker Hani Khalifa focuses on this tension in the lives of his characters in his new film Sukkar Murr (Bittersweet), written by Mohammed Abdel-Moati. The first was Sahar Al-Layali (Staying Up, 2003), written by Tamer Habib, which garnered a huge deal of success by treating marital relations with a boldness unfamiliar to the Egyptian viewer, registering human and emotional detail in a new beginning for both Khalifa and Habib. This, despite the superficial dramatic treatment of marital problems and the use of the techniques of television drama, making Staying Up little more than commercial film, and not – as many critics claimed at the time – a deep artistic film and a among the best in the decade, even though through the 1990s Egyptian cinema was suffering a major financial and artistic crisis.

Bittersweet deals with five couples: Selim (Ahmad Al-Fishawi) and Alia (Aiten Amer), Hossam (Haitham Zaki) and Malak (Sherine Adel), Ali (Karim Fahmi) and Sheri (Sarah Chahine), Marwan (Nabil Eissa) and Nazli (Amina Khalil), and Nabil (Amr Said) and Mariam (Nahed Al-Sebai).

The film opens promisingly, with the script going strait to the heart of the matter. A variety of scenes record the state of the heroes on New Year’s Eve, 2011, starting to tell the story in the middle rather than at the beginning or the end. At the bar Selim and Alia are enjoying themselves together, seemingly happy, while Nazli dances by herself and Marwan with other women. The Christian couple Nabil and Mariam, on the other hand, are bored at a coffee house, while Malak – alone in the house – is reading the Quran. Lines of dialogue refer the viewer to the recent past, and the film goes back to New Year’s eve in 2010 to explain the complexities of these relationships: what happened between Nabil and Mariam and why Hania (Fatma Nasr) warned Alia against Selim...

The device is used again as the filmmakers move back from 2010 to 2009, and further back, tracing the marriages to their origins as relationships and explaining the boredom that has set in. But the script fails to adequately explain the problems that ruin these marriages leading to divorce. Jumping across five or six years, the filmmakers make a valiant effort to document the transformations but the result is a muddle, a major ingredient is missing from the recipe. This may be due to the large number of characters preventing a deeper treatment of any two of them, with an adequate history and structure justifying their behaviour and the radical transformations that beset them. Even the heroes jobs are not clear with the exception of Mariam, Selim, Hossam and Ali (who work as a shopkeeper, a salesman, a ceramics merchant and an art teacher, respectively).

Khalifa does not seem in the least concerned with the temporal – political – dimension as an active element in the drama. Rather, he uses time as a chemical trigger, implying an effect on the couples of the tension in Egyptian society following the 25 January revolution and the events of 30 June. On the whole, however, this approach further weakens the dramatic structure, especially since some of the transformations that take place – both Selim and Nazli after separating from her husband turning from party animals and drinkers into devoutly religious people – require an explanation. This, in addition to Hossam, yet another party animal and drinker, looking for a fundamentalist wife since the beginning. The only character whose turning to religion is given a reason is Malak: her mother dies while reading the Quran.

After Staying Up, Khalifa directed a television series entitled University in 2011, but whenever he enters the cinematic arena it seems he develops an obsession with the institution of marriage. In Staying Up, he critiqued that institution through three marriages and one long term relationship but, by the end of the film, he reaffirms its importance as the only couple who were not married have their wedding. In this sense Staying Up seems a more honest account of the point he is trying to make again in this film: the simultaneously problematic and necessary nature of marriage. But in Bittersweet while the critique is less convincing there is no sense of necessity or the possibility of success. All five marriages end in divorce.

Staying Up is named after a Fairuz song which the male heroes decide to sing when they drive to Alexandria on an impulse in the middle of a crisis in their relations with their partners. Likewise Bittersweet: it is named after a Magda Al-Roumi song, written by the late Salah Jahine and composed by the late Kamal Al-Tawil, which she performed in Youssef Chahine’s 1976 The Return of the Prodigal Son. This time, however, the only reference to the film is a screen title of the relevant line – “My lover is bittersweet, the taste of love/Distance separated us, we are no longer together” – in which the word “bittersweet” is emphasised.

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