Aren’t the Americans lucky with their shiny new president? He’s going to give them change. And then some more change. And then even more change! Like a canned drinks machine misfiring.
Meanwhile – if the rumors are correct – there will be change in Egypt too in 2011, but it will stop at the President’s first name. Ah well, this will at least obviate the need to rename metro and tram stops, as well as several hospitals.
In the meantime Egypt’s unremitting lack of change is a rich source of inspiration for its cinema industry, right? Corruption, crooked cops, crooked politicians, swinging wives, falling rocks, fallen businessmen – and all is happening in what is aesthetically an incredibly cinematic country. By rights Egypt should be spewing out great films in its sleep.
Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, I proudly give you “El Balad Di Feha Hekouma (This Country Has a Government), in which director Abdel Aziz Hashad takes the meaty theme of corruption and boils it down into an insipid tasteless liquid.
The film stars Tamer Hagras, who is apparently intent on carving a role out for himself as Egypt’s answer to Jean-Claude Van Damme. One-trick pony Hagras has mastered the art of sneering, wearing the banter of wife-beater, and sneering while wearing a wife-beater, but that is where his CV ends.
Hagras’ apparition in the film’s first scene is in disguise, albeit a poor one. He appears wearing a Saturday Night Fever white suit and a wig, with a fake Craig David-like beard plastered on his face.
It transpires that he is an undercover cop, Adham, posing as a man wishing to buy a huge amount of cocaine from a bunch of gangsters. He looks like he was dressed up for Halloween, but none of the gangsters laughed, and neither did the other two people in the cinema with me, so maybe bad retro is the new balaclava in Egypt’s criminal underworld.
While in the process of conducting the deal Adham suddenly pulls a gun on the drug lord, El Soueify, and drug squad cops make their appearance, leading to a poorly-executed gun fight in which El Soueify dies. Adham is subsequently rewarded for his bravery, before our hero and his good lady wife bugger off to Sharm El-Sheikh for some R&R.
While Mr and Mrs Adham are frolicking on the beach, the director introduces – or rather thrusts – the remaining main characters on us. He does this by cutting suddenly between scenes: one minute we are watching Def Leppard-haired Amira (Ola Ghanem) buying millions of dollars worth of stocks over the phone and laughing maniacally, the next we see sweet angelic university professor Nour (Heidi Karam) lecturing her students about money laundering.
The juxtaposition works (how can it not), in that we rapidly understand that Amira is “evil and Nour is “good, but the effect is about as subtle and as charming as one-minute speed-dating.
Nour’s father is played by a man with whom I have spent many evenings in a dark room; dear old Ezzat Abu Ouf, whose appearance (together with his cigar) in every contemporary Egyptian mainstream film made is now mandatory by law, as was established in a previous article on this page.
Abu Ouf is Fawzy, a general in the police force and head of the shady Egypt Purification Squad whose men were involved in the Saturday Night Fever drugs sting operation.
Their job is to clean up Egypt of its worst elements, outside the framework of the law, in unrecorded operations. Think Guantanamo. But it’s ok, because they are motivated by their love for Egypt. We know this because Fawzy has the Egyptian national anthem as his mobile phone’s ring tone.
Fawzy trained Adham when he was just a young rookie in a Hitler moustache and a wife-beater, so imagine Adham’s sense of injustice when El-Soueify’s son, “Joe, bursts in on him and the missus in Sharm, and proceeds to avenge his father’s death before Adham concludes that Fawzy was involved in his betrayal. This sense of betrayal is ostensibly the motor for the rest of the film’s events.
Just a word about the Sharm scene: it was bloody awful. I’ve never before witnessed deliberate camera wobbling used for dramatic effect – apart from in home videos made by small children – but I suppose there’s always room for innovation, even if it makes your audience feel sick.
Adham’s missus corks it when Joe lets her go and then blows her up in her car. Adham himself has a narrow escape when Joe throws him overboard, handcuffed. But alas for us, and unknown to Joe and friends, he survives.
Adham now suspects Fawzy’s true identity, except that Adham cannot reveal himself to Fawzy and so gets at him through his daughter, Nour.
Nour is both the daughter of a senior policeman, and a professor of law specialized in organized crime as well as an adult who presumably has some experience of real life. And yet, she displays unabashed horror at Adham’s suggestion that there are senior figures above the law and who escape justice, and storms out in disgust.
This might have something to do with the fact that she has managed to fall in love with Adham despite not actually knowing who he is.
Adham and Nour’s relationship is yet another sorry example of the unconvincing and immature version of love mainstream Egyptian cinema seems intent on recycling again and again.
There is a twist at the end of the film. I won’t reveal what it is in case you ever stumble across the film on TV a year from now and don’t have the energy to reach for the remote control.
While the twist was unexpected, it made very little difference to the quality of what is a dull and confused production, which made vague flirtations at a potentially interesting theme but ended up treating it in the most juvenile manner.
Despite its best efforts, “El Balad Di Feha Hekouma’s treatment of good and evil entirely lacks the nuances of say, “The Dark Knight and, fatally, does not permit itself to (or is intellectually incapable of) dealing with the wider issues it raises.
Even worse, it is a horror to look at: ugly, clumsy and entirely forgettable except for one scene in which Fawzy suddenly peels off his own face to reveal Adham – an unashamed and sad little rip-off of Nicolas Cage’s “Face-Off.