A week ago, while uselessly surfing TV channels, I came across an interview with the cast and crew of “El-Farah (The Wedding), the much-hyped mega production by the notorious Sobky Films.
“Some critics have accused your films of being preachy, the presenter told the baffled scriptwriter Ahmed Abdallah.
“This is a very important point, he said, exchanging a few tentative remarks with director Sameh Abdel Aziz, before the presenter cut in to add, “I personally think ‘El-Farah’ and ‘Cabaret’ present a beautiful invitation to return to our traditions and values.
The entire cast readily concurred as producer Mohammed El-Sobky concluded that “Those who don’t approve the message of the film are communists!
“Communists? Joke or no joke, I was struck not only by El-Sobky’s irresponsible and insensitive remarks, but also by the superficiality and oversimplification of the discussion, which is the essence of “El-Farah.
Abdel Aziz and Abdallah’s second consecutive ensemble drama follows the unexpected success of last year’s overrated “Cabaret. Like their first collaboration, there is plenty to admire in “El-Farah, from the fundamental premise of the story, authenticity of locations and performances, and I must admit that half-way through, I was actually liking the film to some extent.
But like its predecessor, everything goes sour in the third act before Abdel Aziz and Abdallah deliver a lethal blow in the shape of the same exact blunt religious sermon that miraculously manages to outdo that of “Cabaret.
Set in an impoverished Cairo neighborhood in the span of a single day, the film centers on a fictional wedding set up by struggling microbus driver Osta Zeinhom (Khaled El-Sawi) to collect sufficient cash to pay for his own microbus.
The fictional weddings are rooted in an actual custom. Essentially, the wedding guests pay the newlyweds nu’out, a kind of a wedding gift in the form of cash. Apparently, the nu’out is a compulsory custom that operates in a cyclic system supported and sustained by each community whose aim is to provide financial aid for the bride and groom.
The fictional bride and groom are Abdallah (Yasser Galal) and Gamila (Jumana Murad), an actual couple who already signed their marriage contract seven years ago. Due to financial setbacks, their marriage couldn’t be officially consummated, or at least that’s what their parents think. Truth is, the two had already consummated their marriage in secret. Gamila’s father, however, demands they have a wedding to clear his reputation and to prove that his daughter is still a virgin.
As soon as the film began, I was reminded of Robert Altman’s little-seen gem “A Wedding (1978). Both films involve a large wedding with a multitude of characters set in one day. Furthermore, in both films, the matriarch of the family dies. Both are set in completely separate universes though: “A Wedding is in the affluent American south and “El-Farah in a shabby crowded neighborhood where most characters are trying to make ends meet. The comparison between Altman and Abdel Aziz is probably a bit far-fetched, but in order to understand “El-Farah’s failure, you have to look at why “A Wedding works so well.
The characters of Altman’s film walk, talk, and behave with an effortless naturalism. Like real life, you watch them in the foreground and at others, they lurk in the background, entering and exiting other people’s conversations. As in the best ensemble dramas, there is no major plot that regulates the characters’ actions, no grand scheme behind the choices they make. The characters simply exist, and that’s why “A Wedding still feels so compelling and fresh.
“El-Farah, on the other hand, adopts the tired and classical formula of giving every principle character a beginning, middle and an end. And despite the originality of quintessentially Egyptian characters like Assaly the DJ, Salah Warda, the stand-up comedian and Samira who pretends to be a boy to sell beer, the arc of their stories is too conventional: The estranged son, the washed-up entertainer living on past glories, the tomboy vying for male attention, and in the case of the Abdallah and Gamila, the desperate, sex-starved couple struck down by economic conditions.
As in “Cabaret, Abdel Aziz and Abdallah have attempted to paint a unique and specific portrait of Egypt, yet most of the featured stories don’t amount to anything within the context of the larger picture, working in near isolation from each other.
As I mentioned, the film is not without merits. Characters such as Osta Zeinhom, Abdallah and Gamila embody the social and economic desperation most Cairenes struggle with. None of them have the luxury to rebel; they all reside in a suffocating, confined space impossible to flee.
The film is rich with a number of remarkable performances. Yasser Galal is a stand-out with his forceful portrayal of a helpless man destined to collapse.
El-Sawy draws unprompted sympathy for the most complex character of the film; a man torn between the need to put food on his family’s table and a moral conundrum he must confront. Maged Kidwany’s animated Assaly is easily the most vibrant character in the film, injecting the story with a thrust of energy and providing much-needed comic relief
The basic backdrop of the film is fascinating and accurate. From Assaly’s hilarious commentary and the enjoyably dreadful and catchy folk tunes to the colorful locale itself, Abdel Aziz has managed to record an authentically Egyptian ceremony rarely seen in films. It’s pure crass, but it’s very real and very telling of the current cultural reality of this country.
And then there’s the ending issue. The film initially ends in a respectful, downbeat note that perfectly syncs with the progression of each of the stories. The all of a sudden, Zeinhom, alone in his room, spoils it all with a what-if, semi-happy ending induced by the “correct moral choice Zeinhom might have made.
Once again, Abdel Aziz and Abdallah assume the role of a higher being, judging their characters and setting unyielding moral laws. Like “Cabaret, the pair’s “worthy message is this: Follow the rules, and you’ll eventually be OK. God will not abandon you. Your mind will be clear to come up with other effective solutions. If you don’t, well, tough luck; you’re doomed.
In short, it was the usual hollow sermon.
Ever since the old days of Hussein Sidky and Hassan El-Imam, Egyptian cinema has been unable to suppress its addiction to preaching. It may have worked back in the 40s, 50s or 60s, but in this age of moral ambiguity, social, political and religious uncertainty, the message feels no more hypocritical than the real-life agents the film attacks.