Naturally, the recent string of remarkable Egyptian film releases had to come to an end. Critics expected the likes of “El Gezira (The Island) and “Hena Maysara (In Time) to herald a new cinematic renaissance that balances top-notch entertainment with serious, contemporary topics.
However, critics, as always, were overoptimistic and Egyptian cinema is back to its standard trodden course. Inspired by the success of the aforementioned films, filmmakers decided to add extra ingredients to highlight the current social and political Egyptian woes.
Low and behold, the end-result is even more disastrous than the cinematic crimes of Mohamed Saad and Co., primarily because they miss the mark in either being pure works of entertainment or emerging as critical sociopolitical commentary.
Director Saeed Hamed’s current box-office champion “Tabakh El Ra’is (The President’s Chef) is the latest, but certainly not the last, example of this strain.
The film tells the story of Metwally (Talaat Zakaria), a cook who owns a cart that sells traditional Egyptian food. Metwally appears to be some kind of a folk hero in his neighborhood. All the residents of his district are acquainted with him and resort to him when they’re in desperate need of cooking advice.
Metwally operates his business illegally because he has discovered the magical recipe to save him from the costly red-tape of obtaining the required legal documentation.
Metwally uses his world famous meat dish to bribe the food-smitten, low-ranking officials who allow him to continue abusing public space and stealing electricity from the district generator.
Metwally is married to the much-younger physical education teacher Inshirah (Dalia Moustafa), an outspoken rebel who doesn’t shy from expressing her dissatisfaction with the corruption and grievances eroding the government.
On an entirely different sphere, Khaled Zaki plays the unnamed president of Egypt; a naïve middle-aged man completely oblivious to the reality and economics of his own country. The president is constantly duped by his own rotten staff, headed by chief advisor Lotfi Labib, who deliberately withholds the truth from his boss for no precise reason.
One day, the president decides to take to the streets of Cairo and investigate the problems and conditions of his people. After failing to dissuade him, his subordinates force people to stay at home in order to avoid the harmful rays emitted for an upcoming imaginary sun eclipse.
Finding the streets nearly empty during his random escapade, he stumbles upon Metwally, who doesn’t recognize the president. Impressed by his candor and honesty, the president hires Metwally, who becomes the mouthpiece of the ordinary Egyptian citizen.
Egyptian films depicting the head of state are few and far between, and only a handful have dared to criticize or attack an incumbent or former president. The most famous example is Hussien Kamal’s “Shea’ Men El Khouf (Some Kind of Fear) whose bullying, tyrant leading character was widely regarded as a reincarnation of late president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
However, there’s not a single movie in Egyptian film history that takes a direct stab at any of the nation’s leaders.
On the contrary, the president has always been portrayed as a holy, God-like figure that cannot be appraised or even approached.
“Chef is no different. Khaled Zaki does his best Morgan Freeman impression à la “Bruce Almighty as he plays a one-dimensional character we don’t know much about. All Zaki seems to need is the “Chariots of Fire music theme and a little halo behind his head to achieve the full-fledged deity effect.
The most contrived and irritating element of the film is the portrayal of the president’s ignorance. In order to protect the sanctity of this earthly God, scriptwriter Youssef Maati places the blame of every ill inflicting the country on the evil ministers and officials. There isn’t even a hint that the president might be responsible for any of the failed policies or the palpable violations committed everyday.
Everyone knows that an enormous amount of destitute Egyptians aren’t satisfied with the performance of the incumbent president and that few regard him in the same manner as everyone in the film does. And the question that imminently arises is this: Who is this film trying to fool exactly?
Are Egyptians that stupid to believe this crass piece of rightist propaganda?
Entertainment wise, the film is laugh-free. The comedy is blunt, strained, predictable and dull. Maati relies heavily on exploiting the after-effects of the president’s awakening to some of the most imperative problems facing Egyptians such as the deteriorating quality of subsidized bread and abuse of power. Yet, they’re treated too superficially to incite any substantial reaction.
Zakaria doesn’t possess sufficient screen presence and charisma to assume the role of the leading man. Zakaria was a superb supporting actor with his perfect comic timing delivered in adequately separate bouts. In his third fronted film, Zakaria is rendered a burden, not an asset.
Yet perhaps the most unbearable scenes of the film are those that involve him attempting to smooch his trophy wife.
It’s not only that the two lack any kind of chemistry, the age gap between Zakaria – whom the president bizarrely calls ‘a young man’ – and Moustafa is too big it makes Harold and Maude look like Brad and Angie.
And seriously, when have Egyptian women become so desperate? You know there’s something drastically wrong with this country when Zakaria, Heinidi, Saad and other balding middle-aged men are scoring well with the Lebanese chanteuses and bubbly Egyptian TV stars. If Zakaria and his cohorts are the new dream men, then I guess my chances with Keira Knightley aren’t far off.
The massive success of recent politically charged films, despite their flaws, have proven yet again that Egyptian viewers are starving for works that honestly reflect their reality and confront the government with its misgivings.
“Tabakh El Ra’is is, therefore, a major step backward, a film created to be viewed and enjoyed within the presidential palace.
A couple of my friends advised me to attempt evaluating Egyptian movies in a slightly more positive manner in order to support our developing industry. Frankly, I refuse to comply.
Critics don’t check the nationality tag of films they watch. A movie is a movie after all and my strong enthusiasm about “El Gezira or “Ein Shams is no different than my excitement towards films like “4 Months or “There Will Be Blood. I’m not intending to celebrate mediocrity and jump on the bandwagon of the flag-waving parade. If proper American, French and British publications refrain from doing that, why shouldn’t we?
And Keira, darling, I’m waiting for my Valentine’s card.