At the dawn of this decade, when an Egyptian underground film scene was deemed wishful thinking, a group of three young engineering students conceived a full-length video parody of famous Egyptian spy thriller “Al Tareek Ila Elat (The Road to Elat) with zero budget, using commercial camcorders.
Ahmed Fahmy, Hesham Maged and Chico played the principal characters of their loose story that lampooned every pop culture reference of the time – from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to Nike’s all-star football advert.
With no Youtube, social network utilities or fast internet connection to publicize or show their work, the trio was content to lend their finished cut to their close friends and college peers.
Fast forward a year later, “Regal la Taeref Al Mostaheel (Men Who Know No Limits) grew into nothing short of a cult phenomena. The video turned into a popular item, swapped among high school and college students.
Eventually, “Men caught the eye of scriptwriter/producer Mohamed Hefzy (“Tito, “Malaki Iskenderia ) who, years later, saw a commercial potential in their work and decided to produce a mini-series “Afeesh we Tashbeeh that spoofs Egyptian film classics starring the three.
This month saw the next step for the creative trio: a feature film Fahmy and Maged co-wrote that would announce the trio as a possible new fresh force in the highly competitive, overcrowded local comedy film scene. “Wara’et Shafra (Paper Riddle) marks the trio’s first foray into original material, relegating the formula responsible for their breakthrough to the sidelines and creating instead a character-driven comedy that nearly works until the last 20 minutes of the film.
The three, once again, resume their roles as the peculiar leading characters in this adventure/comedy. Chico plays Bedier, a student union wannabe, a buffoon leader who presumes that Luxor and Aswan are one city.
Fahmy plays Fayez, a playful, good-looking womanizer who inherits his grandfather’s vacant antique shop and unofficially transforms it into a video store that occasionally sells porn. Maged, on the other hand, plays Ismail, the hopeless romantic who has a fetish for aging ladies and a firm belief that Juliette was 20-years older than Romeo.
The seamlessly trouble-free life of the three is suddenly disrupted when a stranger implies that Fayez’s grandfather had hidden inscriptions for a treasure only Fayez has the tools for deciphering. When Fayez and the others track him down, they found him stabbed to death and instantly, the three are framed for murdering him.
A shady businessman contacts them and promises a hefty reward if they succeed in finding the booty in Luxor. With police on their trail, the three encounter a host of unusual characters including a local taxi driver/tour guide/rapper (a dark-skinned Ahmed El Feshawy), who claims to know everyone from Victoria Beckham to Osama Bin Laden; a Lebanese young woman who falls for Fayez; and a tour guide who spends her evenings awaiting the fall of planet Pluto.
The greatest strength behind “Men’s colossal success was the sense of goofiness and spontaneity that set the project apart from mainstream comedies. This impulsiveness is nowhere to be found in “Shafra. Fahmy and Maged’s script is more polished and coherent than their previous work, yet the requirements of classic drama seem to have slightly shackled the two from sustaining the side-splitting silliness of the first part of the film.
“Shafra soars when it stays focused on the quirkiness of its characters, that’s when the laughs come fast and strong. From Bedier’s mimicking of Nasser’s notorious 1967 resignation speech and his hilarious sidekick Sherbiny (Mahmoud Azzazy) to Maged’s breakup scene with his college professor and Feshawy’s killer one-liners. Nearly all supporting characters shine and director Amir Ramsis should definitely be lauded for giving the space for each of them and creating this mood of madcap mayhem.
Yet, both Ramsis and the two young scriptwriters may have felt compelled to add some weight to the story by forcing a tired Zionist conspiracy coupled with phony patriotism and distasteful emotional hubbub leading to the last intolerable 20 minutes. The unimaginative, dreary ending could have been easily mocked by the trio in their earlier work.
The curious urgency to succumb to the conventional and force a displaced message into comedy is vastly becoming the chief defect in mainstream Egyptian comedies, blemishing the already fragile stories of the likes of Heneidi and Hany Ramzy. And the question is: Why can’t they just keep it silly?
The only objective of broad, farce comedies like “Shafra is entertainment. The best comedies in history, from “Some Like It Hot to the zany brilliance of the Marx Brothers, never felt obliged to pretend to be something they weren’t.
The Egyptian comedy classics of Fatin Abdel Wahab and Fouad El Mohandes cleverly manipulated the crime elements their stories were founded upon to serve their comedies. In “Shafra, it’s the opposite. The adventure ingredients of the story are a burden, getting in the way of the comedy and nearly spoiling the picture.
As performers, the three young actors are not as magnetic as one would assume they would be. Fahmy is the obvious weak link and the least funny of the three. He’s Zeppo Marx from the Marx Brothers – the one bland, undistinguishable character heavily relying on his good looks who gets a laugh every now and then. Maged is on great form thanks to the written dialogue rather than a discernible inner comedic persona he embodies.
Chico is the palpable standout star of the film. With a burley figure, a talent for sharp delivery and an effortless comedic presence, Chico’s Bedier steals the show with the biggest laughs of the film. His few scenes, with El Feshawy in particular, are outrageous, just terrific.
I don’t know what to make of director Ramsis though. His earlier shorts were unanimously hailed by critics who heralded the young talent, ushering him into the marquee of Egyptian greats. Since his graduation from the Higher Film Institute a few years back, Ramsis embarked on two failed projects – “Akher El Donia and “Kashf Hesab – which met with negative reactions from both viewers and critics.
“Shafra is the best film in his very short career and Ramsis does exhibit a singular vision and a talent for creating a freewheeling, bright atmosphere and a situational comedy rather than the standard verbal one. Yet, and regardless of the ending, Ramsis’ real talent remains submerged under market rules and the overwhelming demand to compromise. Ramsis was once believed to have the potential of becoming the next Yousry Nasrallah; judging by his three efforts so far, he seems be heading towards Ramy Imam’s mediocre trajectory.
Overall, “Wara’et Shafra is the first proper comedy since Ahmed Helmi’s 2007 blockbuster “Keda Reda. Fahmy, Maged and Chico’s first cinematic effort could’ve been a truly remarkable one had it stayed on course till the end.
We have yet to see if the trio is clever and confident enough to avert the clichés of the Egyptian brand of the comedy genre and take some daring steps akin to the ones that made their reputation.