Al-Madina: Two Movies in One, Egyptian Frame of French Plot
Recently, the French Cultural Center premiered al-Madina, a film directed by Yousri Nasrallah in 1999. It isn’t his most recent work, but it’s still new to Beirut a tribute to the state of the Arab film-distribution system.
Nasrallah is quite possibly Egypt’s most-respected independent filmmaker. His work is dedicated to capturing Egyptian society. He has been praised for the critical yet compassionate eye his camera casts upon the average Egyptian.
The price of Nasrallah’s autonomy has been modest output. He’s seen the end of five films since 1988, according to the Daily Star.
At the center of al-Madina is Ali, a young man who wants to act but is unable to get proper work.
The only vent for his creative instincts besides nightly conversations with a poster of Robert DiNiro’s Raging Bull is occasional bottom-of-the-line stage melodramas.
Ali makes money as a butchers’ accountant in his neighborhood souq, where his father is a vegetable vendor.
This quarter, Rod al-Faraj, is emblematic of a number of inner-city neighborhoods in Cairo which have been erased their residents dispersed to desert suburbs by an Egyptian government wanting to restore its historic monuments and attract tourists.
In fact there’s a point at which Ali’s souq, slotted for tourist gentrification, is shut by Egyptian internal security.
He finally decides to escape Egypt and pursue acting in France. Two years later we do find him acting, not on stage but in the boxing ring. Unable to find legal work, he has fallen in with a fellow countryman who pays him to “throw” fights in crooked boxing matches.
His life having ground to a halt a second time, Ali is again stripped of his livelihood. After his business is forcibly absorbed by French gangsters Ali’s partner betrays him and flees to Egypt, leaving him penniless and without an identity.
Ultimately the actor finds himself back in Rod al-Faraj, having to start his life quite literally from scratch.
The report explained that the strengths of al-Madina are those that have come to be expected of Nasrallah’s work generally. His camera captures a grittily realistic vision of life in Egypt. Their lives caught in a state of suspended animation, his characters are more likely to take solace in booze and pot than religion. It’s a Muslim but secular world, and sexuality is never far from the surface.
The plot of al-Madina reiterates one of Arabic literature’s favorite coming-of-age stories. A young man (or woman) leaves for Europe in search of personal betterment, only to become embittered and ultimately having to somehow fit in back home after being “westernized.”
The theme has been successfully developed in a number of Egyptian novels, like Waguih Ghali’s “Beer in the Snooker Club,” and Yahya Haqqi’s short story “The Saint’s Lamp,” the report added.
Nasrallah updates the story in that, rather than taking the hero to bourgeois Europe, it follows Ali’s migration from the meaninglessness of inner-city Cairo to the illegal world of the French demi-monde.
Indeed al-Madina is two separate films, the Egyptian framing story and the central plot set in France. Two films was exactly what Nasrallah had originally intended. Then funding difficulties left him with only enough money for a two-hour production, so he re-wrote his screenplay, effectively squeezing two films into one.
The forced brevity leaves one of the film’s relationships between Ali and the French doctor who saves his life both incomprehensible and inappropriately weighted, coming near the end of the French plot.
But the story is redeemed by fine acting and cinematography. This is especially striking if compared to its bleak black-and-white contemporary, Atef Hetata’s al-Abwab al-Mughlaka (The Closed Doors).
Unlike Hetata’s characters, those of Rod al-Faraj aren’t gray. They constantly work to color their world even if they can’t change how it works. Not everyone is broken by the obstacles thrown in their path – Albawaba.com