No other Egyptian filmmaker has managed to reach the colossal cult status of writer/director Yousry Nasrallah. For more than 11 years since the release of his feature film debut “Sarikat Sayfeya (Summer Thefts) in 1988, Youssef Chahine s former assistant director and protégé remained mostly an anonymous film figure despite the massive international acclaim his sophomore effort “Mercedes (1993) and documentary feature “Sobyan wa banat (Boys and Girls, 1995) were showered with.
It wasn’t until “El Madina (The City, 1999) when Nasrallah became a household name in film and art circles. Shot on a shoestring budget and starring a group of amateur actors, “El Madina became an art house smash, screened at nearly every cultural center in the country and drawing dozens of film lovers who had lost interest in Egyptian films for over a decade.
His next film didn’t only foster his position as one of the country’s foremost filmmakers, but elevated him to the very top of Egypt’s greatest working directors, eclipsing his mentor Chahine and rivalled only by the country’s other giant film luminary Daoud Abdel Sayed (“Kit Kat, “Land of Fear ).
“Bab El Shams (The Gate of the Sun) – a four and a half-hour epic chronicling the Palestinian struggle from the 1948 war until the present day – was produced and distributed worldwide by French TV.
The film was released in Egypt as a foreign production in about three theaters across the country and split into two parts. Despite its uncompromising perspective, difficult subject matter and lengthy duration, “Bab El Shams was a major hit among art house audiences, rendering the film a small, but substantial, commercial success.
“Bab El Shams was Nasrallah’s masterpiece, a film with a grand vision from a filmmaker at the top of his game. It was no wonder that his highly anticipated follow-up project would be met with great expectations and wide media coverage.
After premiering in the Berlin Film Festival to a mixed reaction, Nasrallah’s new film “Genenet al Asmak (The Aquarium) finally opened in Egypt last week to the same muted reaction it received in Berlin, with several theaters witnessing mass walkouts.
“Aquarium revolves around the worlds of two separate characters. The first is Laila Bakr (Hend Sabry), the icy but soft-spoken hostess of a late night radio show, in which listeners confess their deepest secrets, emotions and sexual problems.
Laila is the daughter of a deceased high ranking official. She lives with her domineering, emotionally reserved mother and younger brother. She’s liberal-minded, pro-change and encourages all forms of civil disobedience and demonstrations, yet she herself doesn’t practice what she preaches, choosing to stay at bay from protests or any movements that could instigate the change she’s been known to advocate. She occasionally dates an older man and often considers moving out, but can’t bring herself to face the challenge of living by herself.
The other main protagonist is Youssef El-Nadi (Amr Waked), an anaesthetist, whose hobby is to listen to the ramblings of his sedated patients. Youssef is the son of a former judge (Gamil Rateb), who is now helplessly bound to a hospital bed. Both father and son seem to have little affection for each other; the father appears to disapprove of his son.
Youssef’s social life is almost nonexistent. He works at an illegal abortion clinic where hymen repair surgeries are conducted at night and occasionally has sex with a divorced young lady (Dorra). Youssef owns an abandoned flat he rarely visits, preferring instead to sleep in his car.
The paths of the two eventually meet at the film’s climax, preceded by a number of small personal events, intervention of several characters that swiftly go in and out of the two protagonists’ lives, and a myriad social and political incidents over the period of three days.
“Aquarium is essentially a plot-free film, probably because both Youssef and Laila are passive observants rather than active participants.
The film contains no dramatic peaks, no tangible incidents or act reversals. Its tone and pace are slow and monotonous, extensively influenced by European cinema. One dream sequence in particular bears a close resemblance to Pedro Almodóvar’s dream sequence of “Talk to Her. Nasrallah’s structure is radically different from mainstream films both in Egypt and major cinemas around the world (except probably for France).
Despite its measured pace, “Aquarium is nowhere as visually impressive as Nasrallah’s past works. The visual tone of the film borrows a lot from Michelangelo Antonioni’s signature contemplative long scenes, minus the breathtaking beauty. Yet, there’s always something striking about Nasrallah’s frames, even when there’s nothing extraordinary to look at.
The biggest shortcoming of the film though is the torrent of ideas Nasrallah forces upon his static drama. The main theme of the film is fear and power. From avian flu and AIDS to the government’s terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasrallah crams these various agents of fear haphazardly into his story in an unfocused way.
In perhaps the most pivotal scene of the film, Youssef is led to a “special spot at the Zamalek aquarium where he can spy on lovers making out. “From here, you can see everyone and no one can see you, the guard tells him.
The aquarium is a palpable symbol of Egypt; a place where the big brother is always watching, and even controlling, the actions of his subjects.
Youssef and Laila are the offspring of authority, which they use to reinforce their positions. That’s what appears on the surface, a perception Nasrallah has continuously stressed in his interviews. Not only is such a conception unconvincing and vague the primary premise Nasrallah strangely sidesteps is the more enriching and intriguing aspect of the film.
“The Aquarium, one way or another, is a film about two estranged, insular characters whose sole source of distraction and excitement is voyeurism. Both are incapable of articulating their emotions, or finding a purpose to their lives. Both are descendants of Antonioni’s lonely, tormented characters. But whilst Antonioni’s notions of alienation were a reflection of the state of confusion and the failing morals and religion of 1960s’ Europe, Nasrallah’s take on these concepts is somewhat different.
The state of emotional autism his characters suffer stem from a natural, progressive social evolution unrestricted to the privileged few of the nation. In that sense, “Aquarium resembles the films of Tsai Ming-liang and Hsiao-hsien Hou, whose works thoroughly explored the new-found, epidemic alienation in their societies. Nasrallah suggests that the sense of omnipresent fear is the key motive why people shield themselves behind layers of masks. I don’t really agree with him. Urbanization, technology and consumer culture are the usual suspects, yet a number of several other factors behind the disintegration of the social fabric remain uncharted, and Nasrallah seems reluctant to unveil or scrutinize them.
The silences, gazes and repressed unspoken feelings of the pair carry a piercing truth that will haunt you long after the film ends.
Alas, Nasrallah invades his two protagonists’ privacy through the comments of the supporting characters that provide background information about the pair.
Not only is this cinematic gimmick contrived and distracting, it eventually backlashes, eliminating most of the psychological mysteries behind the pair’s actions and thus distancing the viewers further from them.
As rich and interesting the supporting characters are, their relationships with the two protoganists are never fully developed, leaving the audiences hungry for more. The most fascinating character of the bunch is a Christian widow, played by Samah Anwar, who indirectly reveals her fear of a possible forthcoming Muslim Brotherhood rule, of being the only Christian woman in her building, and hence leases her apartments to an unconventional type of Muslims who accpet difference.
Anwar’s character is frighteningly
authentic, exhibiting an unshakable, easily identifiable paranoia embedded within most Christian communities in Egypt.
It would be unfair to call “The Aquarium a disappointment. Certainly, it doesn’t measure up to Nasrallah’s previous highs and the argument he tries to make – especially the political one that ultimately comes off as rather naive – is neither strong nor persuasive. It’s an incoherent, flawed film that often loses focus. Overall, it’s a daring experiment that doesn’t always succeed.
Nevertheless, and despite its many defects, this is a Yousry Nasrallah film that needs to be seen by serious film goers. In the age of current Egyptian mainstream trash such as “Girls and Motorcycles, “The President’s Chef and “Camp, a film like that is desperately needed. There are moments when Nasrallah confronts his viewers with a bare reality few other filmmakers have charted. For this alone, “The Aquarium is definitely worth watching.