After a year of almost nothing but duds, veteran filmmaker Sherif Arafa finally elevates the Egyptian film scene from the slumps with one of the best action movies this country has ever produced.
“El Gezira (The Island), the incumbent champion at the Egyptian box-office, is essentially a Greek tragedy with an outline strongly inspired by the mother of all epic crime dramas, “The Godfather.
Based loosely on the true story of the recent downfall of drug lord Ezzat Hanafy, the film is set on an island in Upper Egypt whose economy rests on opium cultivation and arms trade.
The film opens as a young police officer Tarek (Mahmoud Abdel Moghney) arrives to the island and begins inquiring about Mansour Hefny (Ahmed El-Sakka), the unofficial ruler.
The officer receives conflicting accounts: Some call him a thug and a tyrant while others praise him for feeding their children and providing protection.
Confused and slightly perturbed, the officer returns to his base to find Mansour waiting for him in calm determination.
After a wily exchange, Mansour brushes off the officer’s threats and bluntly informs him of the laws of his kingdom. “Over here, when kids play cops and robbers, it’s the cops who hide.
Arafa flashes back 10 years earlier to when Mansour had just returned to his hometown after completing his military service.
Mansour is the son of the island’s former ruler (Mahmoud Yassin) who brought prosperity to the residents after planting the seeds of the opium export industry.
Instead of naming his younger brother Hassan (Bassem Samra) as his successor, the father hands the throne to his son, fueling inter-family rivalry.
Shortly after, Mansour finds himself in a continuous cycle of bloodshed with his sweetheart’s family.
Mansour is the classic tragic hero, pushed to handle the family business and suffer the bloody consequences.
His biggest sacrifice is denying his love for Karima (Hend Sabry), the daughter of his family’s fiercest enemy. “Love weakens men, his father tells him, prohibiting Mansour from marrying his one true love.
On another level, “The Island is a morality tale and a character study of greed and power. As Mansour tightens his grip on the island and its residents, he is blinded by the seemingly infinite extent of his authority.
Initially, his family members dismiss the young, civilized lover as a soft college boy, but he gradually turns into a larger-than-life monster. The shallow residues of his conscience do not prevent him from committing murder.
Mansour belongs to the breed of Michael Corleone and Daniel Plainview from P.T. Anderson latest There Will Be Blood. What his character sorely misses though is a motive behind his reluctance to question his father’s obvious crimes and head down the same path.
Unlike Corleone Jr., for example, Mansour hardly experiences a moral conflict before he drowns in his lust for power, money and blood.
Mansour’s character flaws are compensated for with the complexity of the island police chief’s character Rushdi (Khaled El Sawy). First and foremost, Rushdi is a Machiavellian character who justifies his shady agreements with Mansour.
In one of the many riveting scenes, Rushdi tells the idealistic police officer Tarek, who is also his brother-in-law, that a price had to be paid to bring stability to the volatile region following the terrorist attacks of the early 90s.
Rushdi, who represents the Ministry of Interior, contributed to the creation of Mansour and the self-serving ethical code he adopts is no different.
Yet the political jabs some critics over-analyzed miss the point. “The Island is pure, first-class entertainment and the thin, furtive political storyline is simply a part of the compelling drama.
Scriptwriter Mohamed Diab stuffs his film with double-crossings and bumpy twists, all condensed into a coherent story with a clever dialogue.
At last, Arafa (“Terrorism and Kebab ) lives up to his well deserved reputation after a string of disappointments throughout the larger part of this decade. In fact, this is Arafa’s first outstanding effort since 2000’s “El Nazer (The Headmaster).
Arafa drops John Woo’s gaudy slow-motion extravaganza of “Mafia for a fluid visual approach. His occasional hand-held camera shots are refreshing and substantially enhance the film’s overall visual texture.
His prime achievement though is the way he renders the action sequences. There’s nothing revolutionary – or American – about his action style; yet every scene is charged with tension and dynamism rarely present in Egyptian films of the same ilk.
The one element Arafa’s approach lacks is grit and explicitness. The film is crammed with scenes of violence and killings, yet the audience never sees the repercussions of all this destruction.
The set is spellbinding. Arafa and Diab should be lauded for rediscovering Upper Egypt and presenting it from a previously unseen prism sans the clichés and fake accents TV serials boast every year.
Ahmed El Sakka easily gives his best performance to date: he is chilling and cruel yet smart, subtle and charming. Like the classic Hollywood gangster, he’s a man you both admire and loath. However, El Sakka is still an actor with little range and there isn’t a single moment when he succeeds in articulating the character’s vulnerability.
Hend Sabry is fairly good as Karima, the only weak link in the story. The doomed love story between the two is melodramatic and forced in parts.
It’s the supporting actors that shine through and through. Mahmoud Yassin returns to the big screen for the first time in over a decade. Yassin injects his character with calculated eerie menace mixed with cunning wisdom.
Khaled El Sawy proves yet again that he is the best character actor in Egyptian cinema today. With his burley figure and effortlessly cool demeanor, El Sawy reduces his fellow performers to miniatures.
“The Island is a film that delves into a world that, on the surface, seems familiar when in fact, it is quite alien. In one of their conversations, Mansour says, “On the Island, truth is never spoken to strangers.
The film boldly dives into the depths of darkness without ruining it with a predictable conclusion. It is fearless, uncompromising, and thoroughly enjoyable despite its flaws.
The wait for a film like “The Island has been long, but, fortunately, it was totally worth it.