Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Hani Mustafa is disappointed in the latest thriller on the Egyptian screen

The Return of the Prodigal Son
The Return of the Prodigal Son
Al-Ahram Weekly

Every kind of thriller depends on withholding information. The drama is structured so that an incomplete picture of events plays with the mind of the viewer, driving a basic explanation of what’s going on, only to unfold into an entirely different picture towards the end of the film. The viewer then realises how superficial their initial explanation was, and how much more complex the story turns out to be. 

Detective stories are most effective when they hold together even before the mystery is revealed, only to become all the more convincing when it is. Such is the approach of Agatha Christie, for example, whose novels exemplify this mode of storytelling at its best. 

In Min Talatin Sana (Thirty Years Ago), director Amr Arafa and screenwriter Ayman Bahgat Qamar use that technique with some success at the level of form, but perhaps less so in other ways. The film opens with the penniless writer Emad (Ahmed Al-Saqqa), who lives at a downtown pension and is writing a novel about his family. 

The device of a narrator facilitates effortless understanding as the scene shifts to Minya back in monarchist times, focusing on a weapon shop owner who decides to sell his property and move to Cairo where he marries more than one woman and sires a number of children as his business flourishes and he grows rich. 

On his deathbed he calls in his children and divides his assets among them. There is however no particular reason for this being an arms trading family – the fact that some of its members possess guns is not enough justification, after all – since the father could’ve owned any other kind of shop without this making a difference in the drama or the aesthetics.

The story begins for real 30 years later when the original businessman’s children are in their sixties and seventies. His son Omar (Sherif Mounir), a millionaire by now despite having been together with his cousin Emad among the family’s poor people, returns from London. He is received by the eldest aunt Nabila (Ragaa Al-Geddawi), the half-aunt Nagwa (Mervat Amin) and her cocaine addict son Hani (Nabil Eissa), two uncles (Salah Abdalla and Ahmad Fouad Selim) and their children, Selim (Mohamed Mahran), Noha (Gamila Awad), Rasha (Nour) and Emad. 

The screenwriter tries to give each character a convincing background and some depth, but often these details seem superficial and cloned from one another. Hani became a drug addict after he saw his mother in a sexual relationship with one of his friends, for example, and so Nagwa is portrayed as an adolescent-minded elderly woman  eager to stay young whatever that might take. 

In the same context it is mentioned that, of the father’s wives, Nagwa’s mother was the belly dancer – as if that is enough reason for her to have such a character. Selim, on the other hand, discovers that his sister Rasha’s husband is having an affair with his wife, and so both siblings end up divorced.

Nothing sets the eldest aunt Nabila apart except for an old person’s rather funny irritability, nor does the uncle portrayed by Salah Abdalla have any defining characteristics except for his concern over his son Selim’s depression following the divorce. Rasha herself is pretty and arrogant, but has no substance beyond that. Played by Ahmad Fouad Selim, on the other hand, Rasha’s father is the character with the least individuality of all – having absolutely no characteristics of his own. 

Omar is accosted by all these members, who are eager to make use of his wealth to their own ends. Supported by her father, for example, Rasha tries to seduce him so as to marry him. As the dialogue reveals, Omar used to be in love with Rasha 15 years earlier, before he left for London, and he was rejected because he was poor. Noha and her father however are already competing for Omar’s favour. 

The principal event of the film is introduced when Omar gathers the family around him and tells them how he lived in London and how he made his fortune, when the English businessman he worked for promoted him to a managerial position and bequeathed his entire fortune to him. 

He later however realised that this fortune has a curse attached to it, so that whoever has it cannot bear children. Three times he married, three times he failed. That is why he decided to return and distribute his fortune among his family – to put an end to the curse.

While he is out with Nour, Emad and Emad’s girlfriend the poet Hanan Al-Baghdadi (Mona Zaki), an unidentified homeless person walks up to Omar and whispers a single sentence in his ear, “You will kill nine.” The same thing happens again later, and so begins a series of mysterious incidents that lead to the death of the family members one after the other.

Hani is hit by a train while he is driving his motorcycle, following a car chase by armed pursuers. Nabila falls out of her balcony at the family palace – and so on until only Emad and Omar are left. Only then are the mysteries revealed – even though they either depend on chance or turn out to be unconvincing, making for a weak script... 

As if to balance the other characters, Hanan – the poor, working-class girl from Alexandria who embodies the stereotype of the provincial author trying to achieve fame and fortune in Cairo – adds an element of joy and verisimilitude, thanks to Mona Zaki’s performance and the character of her father, played by Mahmoud Al-Guindi. It therefore works as a happy ending when Hanan ends up with Omar’s entire fortune.

Killing a whole family in a particular order is not new to the Egyptian screen; it was the centre of Fadil Saleh’s 1984 Al-Prince, starring Ahmad Zaki, Hussein Fahmi and Nahed Youssri, whose script is copied from the 1948 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets, directed by Robert Hamer. 

Min Talatin Sana is in turn a copy of Al-Prince, down to the hero keeping a journal of his crimes – Emad’s novel. The hero of Al-Prince almost eludes capture, and so does this hero. The only difference between the two films is indeed the fact that Al-Prince held together better.

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