THE REEL ESTATE: A blood-spattered Egyptian soap opera

Joseph Fahim
10 Min Read

Ibrahim El-Abyad is a perfect attestation that even the most brilliant of directors can’t salvage a bad script.

Boasting a lavish production, the country’s biggest matinee idol and one of the hottest young directors around, the film feels like one enormous, but tasteless meal. Neither entertaining nor socially relevant, “Ibrahim El-Abyad is the Egyptian equivalent of an average Hollywood blockbuster, shiny at the surface but empty inside.

After the phenomenal success of his debut feature film “The Yacoubian Building in 2006, director Marwan Hamed was expected to make a big splash with his much-anticipated first collaboration with Ahmed El-Sakka, himself hot off the heels of Sherif Arafa’s “El-Gezira (The Island, 2007).

Indeed, Hamed has left quite an impression on everyone who’s seen his new film, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Beginning with a brutal murder and ending with a massacre, “Ibrahim El-Abyad is hands down the most graphically violent picture in Egyptian film history. The much-sought grittiness Hamed captures to a considerable extent feels pointless in what is essentially an incoherent, potholed soap opera with unsympathetic characters performed by actors that share zero chemistry.

The first 15 minutes are the best part. The film opens in the dark, grubby room of a ramshackle building. Two men and a woman storm into the room, grab a man in the house and beat him to death in front of his child and wife (played by Hanan Turk in her first screen role since she donned the hijab).

The child, the titular character, turns into a young hoodlum and – flash-forward 20-something years – he becomes the almighty El-Sakka.

In the best action sequence of the film, Ibrahim and his side-kick/best buddy Ashry (Amr Waked) are chased by the police for possessing a stash of hashish. The action is halted a few minutes when the pair, having eluded the cops, discover that their stash was stolen during the chase. Ibrahim suspects the traitor is an acolyte of chief Abdel Malek Zarzour (veteran screen star Mahmoud Abdel Aziz), the old mob ruler of their slum-like neighborhood.

Ibrahim embarks on a one-man mission to seize the traitor and retrieve the stash. His long, bloody crusade ends with him being dragged and thrown at Zarzour’s feet and soon, the old man takes him under his wing. Context aside, these two consecutive action sequences are nothing short of superb; fast, invigorating and scrumptiously anarchic. The comparison to “City of God is inevitable.

Shot mostly with hand-held cameras, Hamed’s scenes share more than a passing resemblance to Fernando Meirelles’s real-life Brazilian masterpiece in terms of both aesthetics (shaky camera work, Sameh Selim’s yellow lighting, the confined slum backdrop vividly constructed by Onsi Abou Sief) and characters (lawless men, corrupt police).

That’s where the comparison ends though, because while Meirelles’s film evolves into a fascinating hardnosed portrait of Rio de Janeiro, Hamed films drifts with an aching slowness into a paltry and odd love triangle between Ibrahim, Zarzour and the girl they both lust after: Horreya (Hend Sabry).

There is a coy nod to police torture somewhere in there, but it’s too quick and short to ponder or even notice.

Later on, we find out that Ibrahim’s father was, strangely enough, the victim of a domestic scuffle instigated by Horreya’s venomous, heartless mother (Sawsan Badr). Horreya’s father vows to take care of the kid by beating him up whenever he gets the chance. When Badr’s character catches Ibrahim innocently sleeping beside his childhood love, she goes bananas, tells her husband who consequently beats him with all his might. In an irrational act of self-defense, Ibrahim stabs Horreya’s father to death and disappears.

All these central plot details are unveiled after Ibrahim hooks up, without any introduction, with the grown-up Horreya who is unaware of his real identity. The first part of the film thus feels clumsy, unpersuasive and rushed, depriving Hamed of establishing a solid rapport between the two lovers.

Back to the love triangle; legend says that Zarzour became infatuated with Horreya since she was a little toddler, so he decided to “raise her in front of his eyes, wait for her to grow up and marry her.

His scheme goes awry when she, as a grown, strong-headed woman, rejects his advances. Still under her spell, Zarzour continues to a keep a close eye on Horreya, axing anyone who dares to approach her.

Naturally, Horreya finds out that Ibrahim was her father’s murderer, vows revenge and marries Zarzour half-way through the film.

By the time the film reached its final predictable conclusion, during which time a man in the theater shouted “Da film Hindi (This is an Indian movie), I lost every ounce of interest I may have had at the beginning.

The story simply doesn’t hold together. There are massive, alienating gaps between the action and the plot, each heading separately into trodden routes, unintentionally reaching a blocked end mid-way through.

There’s hardly any room for the characters to develop or the story to take off again; no wonder I grew weary within the first 30 minutes of the film. The distance between the audience and the characters is too wide for Hamed to mend; the characters contains too many lapses to make the audience empathize with them.

From the outset, the film appears to be a Greek tragedy/doomed punk romance. But Abbas Abol Hassan’s first script, despite the violence, is too conventional and benign to be punk and too amateurish to be truly tragic.

It doesn’t help when the principal actors seem uninterested. El-Sakka, who gave his best performance to date with “The Island, goes back to square one in a role that required little apart from kicking, jabbing, running, jumping and flicking his switchblade. For most parts of the film, El-Sakka looks like a zombie with little display of emotions.

Abdel Aziz’s much lauded turn as the charismatic Zarzour is overrated to say the least. He does have an undeniably strong screen presence bolstered by his composed, calculated demeanor, and, truth be told, it’s difficult to keep your eyes off him even in the most tedious moments of the film. But he’s never as menacing as he should be, and thus, the antagonistic force of the film feels feeble and non-threatening.

Sabry is just Sabry, offering nothing new from what we’ve seen before. The transformation her character endures is hardly reflected in her monotonic performance.

Waked is one of the few saving graces of the film. Highly volatile and impulsive, Ashry, despite his weaknesses and loyalty for Ibrahim, is the only true intimidating character in; an Egyptian incarnation of Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy from Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.

Ashry is the kind of feral thug you spot in the street every now and then and try to avoid at all costs. Waked carries Ashry’s rowdiness with a bold physical intensity that sparks the screen and this is, by far, his best performance to date.

As I mentioned, Hamed’s direction is certainly remarkable. He borrows plenty of visual references from several sources, but he undoubtedly possesses a penchant for crafting arresting frames.

But his approach with a modest, non-ambitious story like “El-Abyad is not only erroneous but disorienting. His vision is too epic, too grand for a story of “El-Abyad’s size. The end result is analogous to David Lean’s ill-fated “Ryan’s Daughter, leading several dramatic threads to be lost in the grandiosity of his vision.

Good News, the country’s biggest production company, has put out yet another extravagant production that lacks heart, sophistication and brain. Contrary to what the filmmakers claimed, the violence the film brashly parades has nothing to do with reality.

“Ibrahim El-Abyad is too consumed with unraveling the intricacies of its story, with stirring interest from a highly formulaic plot that aimlessly lingers until the conflict turns stale, to make any significant comment on the escalating violence in Egyptian streets, although I highly doubt that that was i
ndeed the primary intention of Hamed and Abol Hassan.

And take my word, it’s boring to death.

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