One of my earliest childhood memories goes back to a day in school when a Muslim friend and classmate approached me, looking unusually sad. “I feel sorry for you, he said. “My dad told me that you [Christians] are going to go to hell when you die, and that we [Muslims] are going to spend the rest of eternity in heaven throwing stones at you.
It wasn’t until later on in my life that I started getting a fuller perspective on Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt.
Everywhere from the impoverished outskirts of the Capital to the small, populated village of the south, the hatred and contempt the two held for one another was impossible to ignore.
For most Egyptians, religion, is their raison d’être, and nearly every one of these God’s warriors seem to be ready to defend their religion, no matter what it takes.
Recent recurrent sectarian clashes are tangible proof that the so-called harmony between the two is nothing but a fable; that the much touted ‘national unity’ had died with the outbreak of extremist Islamic thought in the mid-1970s, the exile of Pope Shenouda in 1981 and the subsequent rise of Christian radicalism.
Thus, it was only natural after years of completely false representations by mainstream media that a film finally emerges to open up the issue. Said film is the big budget, heavily publicized blockbuster “Hassan & Morkos co-starring for the first time Egypt’s top film stars, Adel Imam and Omar Sharif.
But despite its admirable intentions, the buzz surrounding the film before release is much ado about nothing. Don’t be deceived by the trailer.
“Hassan & Morkos is just a comedy with a few stinging punches and an excessively shallow perspective on the predicaments of our age.
The film has a promising start that, alas, scriptwriter Yousef Maati – Imam’s frequent collaborator – fails to develop.
The setting is an annual national convention for Muslim-Christian dialogue.
Walking down to the Cairo Conference Center, two priests dismiss the event, complaining about the severe obstacles the government imposes on constructing churches and the near-lack of Coptic representation in both Parliament and Cabinet.
On the other hand, two Muslim clerics rebuff the Christian allegations, claiming that Copts control the economy; that whenever they build a Mosque, the Christians insist on building a church in front of it; and that the Coptic calls for Eastern Christmas to be a national holiday have led to an influx of vacations.
In the next scene, the four men are shown holding each others hands, and chanting “Yahia El-helal maa Al-saleeb (Long live the crescent with the cross). The brilliance of the scene lies in the novelty of watching these widespread remarks uttered candidly on the silver screen, of the shock behind watching one of cinema’s primary taboos finally shattered for the first time.
However, what follows doesn’t live up to the promise made by this scene.
Adel Imam plays Boulos, a theology scholar whose hostile speech targeting the Coptic Diaspora opens the gates of hell, ending with an attempt on his life.
Meanwhile, Sharif is El-Attar, a pious Muslim herbalist summoned to take the reign of an extremist Muslim group which used to be headed by his deceased brother.
The two men are ordered to go into hiding by a top general (bald and hilarious Ezzat Abou Ouf) and change their identity. Boulos becomes iconic Muslim preacher Sheikh Hassan while El-Attar is transformed into Morkos, a Coptic businessman who just returned from the US.
The two men and their families eventfully become neighbors in a building owned by Boulos s Christian friend. The two families instantly hit it off, and both El-Attar and Boulos soon open up a bakery, while their children, Gergis (Mohamed Imam, Adel’s younger son) and Fatma (Sherry Adel) begin to fall for each other.
The key problem with “Hassan & Morkos is its brand of dated comedy, heavily built on comparative scenes and coincidence. Tackling such an awkward and sensitive issue requires humor to soften the heat, and, regardless of their misplacement, there are several sidesplitting scenes, especially those featuring Abou Ouf.
But in employing this type of broad comedy, the film sacrifices integrity and depth, eventually feeling tame and unfocused. Not only does the tone of director Ramy Imam’s (Imam’s older son) comedy not match the drama, it ultimately feels strained and artificial.
A large part of director Imam’s style stresses the displacement of two men ignorant of the others religion. One particular scene that sees clueless Boulos and his son roped into providing religious guidance to a group of mosque-goers raked some of the biggest laughs of the film.
The aforementioned comparative scenes are perhaps the film’s biggest gaffe.
In order to give equal screen time for both stars (Imam, as expected, is more visible than Sharif) and paint an evenhanded portrayal of both Muslims and Christians, Maati and Imam Jr. present the two protagonists’ essentially similar reactions to certain incidents. Not only does this technique feel old-fashioned, it loses steam quickly and fails to offer any revelations.
The film is not without merit, though. Maati shows the clear distrust each member of the other faith has for the other, the Christian fury over cross-religious marriages and the religion-based favoritism in the workplace.
The film’s biggest asset is its honest depiction of the deeply flawed nature of the lead characters. Gradually, Maati’s script reveals their prejudices, divulge their discriminatory acts, and highlight the inbred, irrational resentment between the two families.
Yet the film fails to touch upon the reasons for this deep-rooted tension. It never tries to understand the Muslim hostility, nor does it expound on the Christian rage and plight.
In a film where the subject is the main attraction, no specific performance steals the limelight. Sharif gives a quiet, graceful performance, shining especially in his gentle comedic scenes. Sherry Adel is radiant as Fatma, showing a remarkable command beyond her age. Mohammed Imam’s performance is a far cry from his intense turn in “The Yacoubian Building, uncovering a strong comic presence, influenced mainly by his father’s overriding comedic persona.
As for Imam senior, the burden of carrying the film’s comedy weight and balancing it with serious drama resulted in a highly uneven performance. At times, Imam is just playing Imam, with the same thuggish attitude and archetypal antics that are exceedingly at odds with his character.
The audience’s reaction to the film has varied. Most Christians I met thought it was unacceptable equating Muslim fanatics with the Copts who haven’t instigated any of the clashes that took place in the last few years, while many Muslims believe that Copts like playing the role of the victim and that there’s no real discrimination in Egypt.
Judging by the hundreds of aggressive comments cramming the film’s message boards, it s clear that it will take more than a film to change perceptions.
Although “Hassan & Morkos is an important film, arriving at a crucial point in our history, its simplistic message intended for mass consumption doesn t do justice to the gravity of the issue at hand.
However, the film should be lauded for finally breaking the silence, for opening up the door to, hopefully, more insightful, accomplished films to come.