Mr. El-Sobky, butcher-turned-film producer, has an identical vision of customer service in both careers: Give the people what they want and don’t surprise them with lamb’s brain when they’ve asked for half a kilo of chicken breast.
Like an economy class airplane meal, the appearance of the slightly odd, pharmaceutical company-like El-Sobky Films logo means certainty, few surprises and a slight feeling of queasiness for the next 90 minutes. Judging by El-Sobky’s output, it is an unstoppable formula.
I was force-fed the formula again this week in the company of Hamada Helal, a member of the group of Egypt’s generic ‘youth’ singers who have built careers out of lite love songs interspersed with ostentatious displays of piety performed while wearing tight t-shirts.
Tamer Hosny – who graced these pages a fortnight ago – is another almost identical member of this tribe, except that where hirsute Hosny likes to give off an air of ineffable, racy, cool, Helal has constructed an image for himself of a cheeky, lovable boy-next-door type – an image which he doesn’t venture very far from in his latest role in which Hamada Helal plays a character called Hamada.
The only thing separating “Helm El-Omr (Dream of a Lifetime), his latest cinematic transgression, from the approximately 3,851 other Egyptian mainstream films I have seen this year is the boxing, and Tawfeeq Abdel-Hamid.
When we first meet Hamada, he is an eight-year-old living in Ismailia with his mom, Hala Fakher, who essentially reprises her role in “Heena Maysara, only with less swearing. She does a reliable job, as usual.
The opening scene shows young Hamada being sent off to school with his egg sandwiches before he is mugged for said snacks in slow-motion by a group of school bullies. Never before have eggs had such meaning.
Eggless and traumatized, Hamada returns home where, luckily, his neighbor is a professional boxer with a punch bag in his living room. The neighbor takes Hamada on and we see images of them running and air-punching their way through Ismailia’s pretty streets in a Rocky fashion for what seems like hours.
Why director Wael Ehsaan (“Zarf Tarek ) chose to torture us with prolonged scenes of running in his film is a mystery.
Young Hamada turns into a fine young man with a new grown-up name, Ahmed, while hitting a punch bag. We join him on his odyssey to become a professional prize-winning fighter. He outgrows Ismailia and forces his family to move to Cairo to pursue his dream.
By family, I mean Fakher and his new nine-year-old sister, who he has suddenly and miraculously – given that his mother has been a grieving widow since the start of the film – been acquired out of nowhere. Yet another missing piece of the film’s amazing puzzle.
Off we go to Cairo and within the space of three minutes are introduced to the film’s two other principle characters from which we deduce that Ahmed will fall in love with a beautiful rich girl, Nour (played by newcomer Dina Fouad), who evil police officer and amateur boxer, Akram, is after – fancy that!Why after spinning out the jogging scenes for years Ehsaan felt compelled to compress all this action into a millisecond is yet again beyond me, but perhaps explainable by the fact that the running scenes allow him to show off the film’s undeniably gorgeous cinematography. Cinematographer Raouf Adel Aziz s vivid colors and nicely-framed shots are one of its little compensations.
Nour works in a flower shop in the sports club in which evil Akram trains, and in which Ahmed arrives to seek out his shot at stardom. Ahmed claps eyes on Nour amongst her roses, and lo and behold, violins start playing in his heart and in our ears, such is her loveliness. We also learn for the first time that while acting scenes of great emotion, Hamada Helal’s voice goes really high.
This is also when we meet lovely Tawfeeq Abdel-Hamid, an actor whom I was first introduced to through his memorable roles in TV soap operas notably “Weapons of Mass Destruction and his excellent performance in last Ramadan’s “Window on the World.
I have an enormous soft spot for Abdel-Hamid – despite his habit of looking like Beaker out of the Muppet Show when upset – because there is a certain warmth about his acting. This was apparent despite the lamentable poorness of the script thrust upon him in the film, particularly in a scene in which he laments his missed chances and dead wife and wheelchair-bound daughter. While it isn’t “I could have been a contender, it is, nevertheless, extremely moving.
A word about Nour: could Ehsaan not just have used a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a sexy female figure? Wonder Woman, or Princess Leia for example? He could have hired a small child to stand out of sight and move it around. It would have saved him an acting fee and made no perceptible difference to the film, such is the absolute mediocrity of Fouad’s acting. She’s just too young to have had botox, so why doesn’t her face move?
Her role is just to be pretty and delightful, only one of which duties she fulfils, rather spending the rest of the time trailing round after the men inconsequentially in her heels.
Luckily for Ahmed, she declares her love for him quite literally about five minutes after meeting him. While we in the cinema audience guffawed and choked on our popcorn, Nour acknowledges our skepticism by producing the words “I know I’ve only just met you Ahmed, but I love you with levels of passion which leave us even less convinced.
Ahmed’s convinced though. “I love you too, he tells Nour, his voice so high that it is almost only audible to whales.
Nour is very, very rich, and Ahmed is very, very poor (could this explain why all the vests stretched over his rippling torso are ripped down to the naval? Can he not afford to replace them?). But he still wants to marry her so off he pops to have a word with her dad, in his country retreat.
Nour’s dad, Roshdy Beik, is played by Ezzat Abo Ouf and his cigar, in a role which is quite literally copy-pasted from his incarnation as the rich father fending off poor suitors for his daughter in the classic “Hassan Tayara.
Ahmed puts his case to Roshdy, explaining that he dreams of one day becoming champion of the world, while Roshdy shoots pigeons.
This leads to a cull of pigeons of massacre-like proportions, Roshdy shooting a pigeon each time he provides Ahmed with a reason why he can’t marry Nour: Roshdy is shooting down Ahmed’s dreams is the message which we are forced to ingest again and again and again.
The film ends exactly as you have already predicted: Akram gets his comeuppance, Roshy Beik repents and laments and Ahmed becomes boxing champion of the world. We might have cared about these events if we were given the chance to care about the two-dimensional, forgettable characters that carry them out.
But El-Sobky makes up for that with a healthy dose of jingoism. The final scene is an inevitable frenzy of flag-waving, Egypt-chanting nationalism as Ahmed wins a close fight with an individual who we are to understand is American but speaks in a heavy German accent, confirming the general rule in Egyptian cinema that white foreigners are indistinguishable and interchangeable – which funnily enough, is the general attitude of the US cinema industry to brown-skinned people from Asia and the Middle East. Fancy that!