El Bilyatsho (The Clown) is one hilarious film. It closely abides by the rules of over-the-top comedy by deviating from logic, reality and any kind of saddling morals.
There’s one problem with the film though: It’s not supposed to be a comedy.
“The Clown is director Emad El Bahhat’s follow-up to his feature debut “Ostoghomaya (Hide & Seek), a film I didn t think highly of when it premiered last December at the Cairo International Film Festival.
A commercial and critical flop when released last March, the movie was a wordy, superficial drama. The plot was based on a premise quite analogous to Fassbinder’s little-seen TV film “Chinese Roulette.
“Hide & Seek did contain a few scenes that led me to believe that Youssef Chahine’s former protégé might expand his vision and churn out better works in the future. With “The Clown, all hope is crushed and El Bahhat manages to accomplish a rare feat: Producing a film that is even worse than his debut, which could also rank as the year’s worst drama so far.
“The Clown tells the story of Ali (Haitham Zaki), a trapeze artist who becomes a burglar to amass the LE 70,000 needed for his father’s operation. The mastermind behind Ali’s robberies is Maher (Fathy Abdel Wahab), a former circus buddy. Maher became a wealthy businessman after quitting the circus through blackmail and devious business operations.
The signs of Maher’s rottenness are palpable to everyone but Ali. Why? Well, if you’re intending to watch the film, you must overlook any explanation since it’s never given.
One robbery requires Ali to steal some documents from the home of one of Maher’s competitors. While doing so, he witnesses business mogul Safwat (Ezzat Abu Ouf) murdering his cheating wife and her young entrepreneur lover.
Next morning, Ali discovers that Maher is sending a bunch of thugs to assassinate him. The motive behind Maher’s change of alliance is exposed near the end of the film and, like every other plot revelation, emerges as a weak, unconvincing rationale that leaves a number of holes in the plot.
To avert his imminent death, Ali rushes into a police station where he accidentally learns that he’s been framed for the entrepreneur’s murder. Within a few hours, he becomes the country’s most wanted criminal.
Ali manages to make an easy getaway. With the help of Faten (Heidi Karam) – a former circus performer transformed by Maher into “the most famous supermodel in the country – he begins a short, uneventful journey to clear his name. He also works to save Faten from her enforced association with Maher and resolve the other conflicts that continue to block his path to the land of nowhere.
“The Clown, like its predecessor, is a condensed version of tacky Egyptian soap operas. El Bahhat’s world is set in a black and white city where one-dimensional heroes and villains are portrayed in a manner that doesn’t allow any other possibilities.
One of many bewildering questions that struck me during the derisory dialogues between Zaki and Karam is: When will our filmmakers stop forcing sentimentality into their work?
It seems they simply don’t know how to stop. They do it as much now as they did during the golden years of cinema. Apparently, filmmakers like El Bahhat are in the business of torturing their audience.
The film is designed as an attack on corrupt, heartless businessmen who lack moral codes and so control this “grand external circus, as Ali describes it.
The broad disparity between the utopia of the uncontaminated circus world and the besmirched external one is presented as the divine philosophical brainchild of the socially-conscious writer/director.
El Bahhat is no intellectual, but couldn’t he channel his scorn onto a more original target? Couldn’t he be more subtle in his approach, instead of appearing like a schoolteacher thrusting his valuable lessons into the minds of his low IQ students?
As for the performances, Haitham Zaki, son of the late great actor Ahmed Zaki, plummets to the lowest depths of acting inferno in an effort to win the coveted award for most rigid, least inspired performance of the year. Not only are his reactions exaggerated, Zaki is tediously monotonous.
But truth be said, he does manage a few glimpses of hidden, genuine sadness that can be intriguing to watch.
It’s obvious that “The Clown was rushed to catch the summer season. The embarrassing in-your-face product placement of the production company Masr El Arabeya’s other work “45 Days is presented through a wide shot of a large poster of the film, and proves that the film was still being shot last May.
The frustrating ending defies laws of nature, common sense and weaves all hanging threads into a sudden, predictable ending. It doesn’t even hint at how the escalating problems the protagonist was facing neatly came to rest. El Bahhat ties everything up without explaining how they were solved.
If El Bahhat exhibited some brief glimpses of promise in “Hide & Seek, that potential diminishes with “The Clown.
The film has no visual flair and lacks personality, disrespecting its audience by being too lethargic to conjure the basic elements of a classically designed story. The horrid commercial and critical reactions it received confirm that there are Movie Gods after all.