Few scriptwriters have enjoyed as successful a career and as much creative freedom as veteran writer Wahid Hamed. His sharp political criticism coupled with a knack for creating original stories with engaging Egyptian characters has attracted the biggest names in Egyptian and Arab cinema. His commercial success has earned him a card blanche to write about whatever occupies his mind.
After the unprecedented success of last year s The Yacoubian Building, Hamed decided to unwind and work on a comedy – something different than the heavy subjects he usually tackles.
Alawela Fel Gharam (First Lesson in Love) was the product of what is hopefully a temporary phase. The film – released during Eid – illustrates a quality no critic assumed Hamed posses: The ability to create an average, uneven work.
Love tells the story of Amr El Seyoufi (Hany Salama), a spoiled, irresponsible womanizer who has wasted his entire fortune on countless amorous affairs. His billionaire ailing uncle (Gamil Rateb) repeatedly saves him from bankruptcy.
Amr s days of plenty come to an end when he s sentenced to 17 years in prison after failing to pay back his swelling debts. The enraged uncle refuses to support his prodigal nephew and the young man goes into hiding.
Amr s guided to a shelter ruled by Mo alem Maghawry (Ahmed Rateb), a powerful, ruthless man referred to as the “Lord, who specializes in protecting corrupt businessmen and politicians by helping them flee the country.
Maghawry’s sister Wanisa (Tunisian newcomer Dorra) is a woman with a wild, forbidden beauty that endangers Amr s life. With the help of his nerdy, faithful secretary Sondos (Menna Shalaby), Amr attempts to escape from Maghawry while learning a lesson that eventually leads to his redemption.
Love is, first and foremost, a morality tale about a man too indulged in his own desires to make anything significant out of his worthless life. It s also an oddball romantic comedy filled with Hamed s archetypal political subtext.
Strangely enough, the film doesn t seem to work on any of those levels, succeeding at random intervals with a series of detached comic situations performed by the wasted talents of the cast.
The key shortcoming of the film is Salama s protagonist. Amr s an exceptionally unlikable, obnoxious character who does not manage to win the audiences sympathy at any stage of the story. Hamed s choice to rush the character’s rehabilitation process denies the viewers from one last chance to connect with Amr or forgive him. In fact, Amr s so abhorrent you d wish he would indeed go to prison and save us from following his imprudent and trifling trials.
It doesn t help when such a detestable character is played by Salama, an actor who continues to exhibit a deficiency in channeling any type of character. Salama sorely lacks the sense of humor and comic timing this character requires. Instead, he remains as stoned-faced as ever, walking like a zombie among a group of energetic beings. His few dramatic, vulnerable moments are unconvincing.
The patchiness of Hamed s script is quite distressing. The events in the film are completely out of sync and tone with one another. Contrary to his past works, Hamed s dramatic incidents in this movie feel strained. There s nothing fresh or innovative about his characters.
The main defect in the script is the third act, which steals extensively from David Fincher s The Game. The events leading to the finale are absolutely illogical and deceptive with plot holes larger than the protagonist s ego. The ending is so flawed it nearly deconstructs the film’s entire dramatic structure.
Director Mohamed Ali, in his second directorial effort after last year s romantic comedy Lea’bet El Hob (Game of Love), shows a slight maturation and an aptitude for shooting classy comedic scenes. His palpable influence by Hollywood pictures still reigns supreme over his frenzied, cartoonish characters (Sondos and Amr s Uncle in particular). He also persists on adhering to American comedy conventions.
Apart from Salama s unbearable performance, the supporting cast provides few glimpses of hope in a rather flat story. Shalaby s over-the-top Sondos is loveable, cute and outright funny. Only someone with a true talent like Shalaby’s can play such a character without a hint of irritation or insincerity.
Hesham Selim s small side-splitting cameo at the beginning of the film as a serious, but conformist police-officer almost steals the thunder of the entire cast. Gamil Rateb injects the unbending façade of the merciless tycoon with subtle humor while Ahmed Rateb plays a charismatic Maghawry.
Dorra gives the most memorable performance. Her Wanisa, as Amr describes, is a woman no man can resist. Dorra exhumes an electrifying sexuality unseen since the heydays of sex icon Nahed Sherif in the 70s. A few chops with her Egyptian accent and minor overreacting in some scenes are overshadowed by a magnetism that devours the rest of the characters. Fingers-crossed, this could be the beginning of an exciting career.
Hamed s political attacks touch upon people’s fear of Egyptian police, government corruption and social jumble, which is interesting to watch. His sly sexual innuendo presented through one long-running joke that involves the male reproductive organ is thoroughly amusing.
First Lesson in Love is a minor work by one of Egypt s most illustrious film figures that s out of league with his previous works. Hamed s script is too shabby and hackneyed to be saved by the notable performances and infrequent humor. The continued longevity of Salama s career though remains of one of the most perplexing mysteries of modern Egyptian cinema.