Despite the idiotic door policy in effect at Thursday night’s screening of Heliopolis, and the very real possibility of a Cairo bloggertwitterung, considering the large numbers of online denizens in attendance, it was nice to see such a large and enthusiastic turnout for what was a slow art film. Also TBE is always secretly overjoyed when we witness older folks take authority figures to task for their stupid policies, as occurred repeatedly that night (and that despite the fact that one of the ladies of a certain age who argued so vociferously at the door then sat behind TBE chatting with her friend and taking phone calls through the whole movie). Also it provided evidence for our theory, expounded in the waning lines of this recent post, about the existence of a critical mass audience for art.
The review, after the jump.
As for the movie itself, it was a bit boring but visually was amazing, the best looking Egyptian film we’ve seen in terms of making Egypt look like Egypt and not some stylized version of Egypt (Note to Egyptian filmmakers: Film on location more often), and also on its own terms. It was the kind of movie with enough visual interest that it could be projected soundless onto the wall in a club, as is sometimes done to create “atmosphere.”
Some of the plot lines were underdeveloped, particularly Khaled Aboul Naga’s. His character seemed subject to wild mood swings only semi-explained by what was going on around him. Although the bar scene disrupted the viewer’s expectation that his friend was going to say that he himself was going to marry the girl, it was a bit melodramatic for him to engage in such a long setup just to tell poor Khaled that his ex was getting married to someone else. Cairo is small enough that he would have already known, as he did. Also it struck us as a bit silly that the engaged couple would be so steamed about missing out on saving a measly LE300, considering they were on the market for what looked like a very expensive flat in Heliopolis.
The answering machine scene that ended the film was tops, though, as was the scene where someone else calls to inquire about the doctor’s flat, particularly his brief pause upon hearing “salaam aleikum” on the other end of the line. In general, scenes involving phones and implements of telephony were well wrought. And no review would be complete without paying homage to the film’s humanizing portrait of the “unknown soldier.”
We’re not sure how we feel about the film’s political message, if there was one. It seems like everyone’s become a creationist of late. Whereas the old arguments used to center around whether Sadat or Nasser were better, the new (old) thing is to look back achingly to the pre-revolutionary era. Perhaps the contentious politics of the era would have eventually borne fruit in the form of an actually existing parliamentary democracy, but maybe the alternative would’ve been worse. And one shouldn’t forget on whose backs the prosperity and glamour of the era were built.
Despite these mild flaws, the movie did convey Egypt’s stifling atmosphere, and we thought it quite a unique and daring narrative strategy for the director to take, in conveying the characters’ sense of ennui by making the audience feel that same emotion while watching the film, even at the expense of plot development.
Heliopolis is a more subtle version of the “message films” (Dukan Shehata, Ehki Ya Shahrazad, Hena Maysara) that have become increasingly common. It is probably too oblique to receive a wide release in Egypt, and members of the international art film crowd don’t care enough about movies from Egypt that are so unbombastic to distribute them abroad.
We’ll end on a clichéd note: Though flawed, Heliopolis heralds the arrival of a major new talent on the Egyptian film scene, and we expect great things from Ahmad Abdallah, the film’s director.