It wasn’t supposed to go this way.
For the past 15 years, Egyptian filmmaker Oussama Fawzi has been a critics’ darling, directing two of the most acclaimed films of the 1990s (“Ghosts of the Asphalt in 1996 and “Fallen Angels Paradise in 1999) and one of the defining films of 2000s (“I Love Cinema in 2004).
In each of his first three films, Fawzi ventured into different genres: hyper realism in “Ghosts, metaphysical surrealism in “Angels and social drama in “Cinema. In every single film, Fawzi established himself as one of Egypt’s few young auteurs, exhibiting a highly distinctive vision and a penchant for both experimentation and envelope-pushing.
Anticipation for another masterwork from Fawzi and “Cinema scriber Hani Fawzi was running high – but all expectations came crashing down with the release of “Bil Alwan Al-Tabiiyya (In True Colors), Fawzi’s first film in five years.
Most critics and audiences alike derided the film. In fact, only a handful of people I know liked it.
Now that the forceful storm that greeted the film has calmed down considerably, I believe it is time for a more contemplative reassessment.
Make no mistake, “Colors is a big failed enterprise: talky, uneven in tone and uncertain about the message it wants to convey. But the film is not without virtues, and there are some qualities to admire, from the inventive color structure to the defiant spirit of its characters. And for those reasons, the failure of the film is even graver because in all honesty, it did have a strong potential to be a truly remarkable piece of cinema.
The film is set in the Faculty of Arts, a place that’s never been approached before in Egyptian cinema. Like “Cinema, the central conflict of “Colors is the widening schism between religion and art in present society. The film’s protagonist, Youssef (Karim Qassem from 2006’s indie hit “Awqat Faragh ), grapples with his faith (the fear of God in particular) and his passion for art.
Hailing from a lower middle class family, Youssef struggles to fulfill the wish of his unaffectionate mother (Intissar) of becoming a physician. When he gets accepted into the Faculty of Arts, his mother passes out, believing that art will most definitely corrupt her son.
The school of art as portrayed by Fawzi has no resemblance whatsoever to the real one. The government-run faculty is quasi-bohemian asylum where ultra-hip hotties in skimpy outfits walk side by side with face-veiled young women, where beer seems to be the undeclared official drink sipped casually in classes, where teachers, some of whom dressed in shorts, encourage their students to run amok.
Naive Youssef initially finds himself lost in a place he calls “Juhanam (Hell) after storming out of an anatomy class where the students are instructed to draw nude models. He quits for a short while, gives medicine another shot, fails, and returns to the faculty.
He gradually starts to open up to this new world, befriends Ilham (Yousra El-Lozy) and later falls in love with her while striving to find his artistic voice in a dilapidated educational institute managed by apathetic professors.
Fawzi introduces us to other characters that, in several intervals of the film, seem more interesting than the main ones. The most intriguing of these supporting players is Ali (Egyptian/American DJ Ramsi Lehner), a wandering soul in search of purpose. Ali personifies an idea that, alas, is barely developed within the context of the drama: the compromise between art and commerce.
Among the multitude of other characters is Ali’s half-German girlfriend (Farah Youssef), and the pair’s relationship is strictly physical. There’s also the notorious, manipulative and sultry teacher Laila (Tunisian newcomer Ferial Youssef), who steadily draws Youssef into her web; and Dr Naim (Mahmoud El-Lozy), the free-spirited professor who becomes Youssef’s mentor.
There is certain mystique about the school of arts as seen by Fawzi, a distant place with a faint trace of creativity, liberation and undying youth. Two forces are constantly clashing: the crushingly humdrum reality of the external world/country at large and the school’s inbred sense of possibility. Ultimately, the former wins out, forcing Fawzi to take the trodden path of melodrama.
That’s why “Colors feels so muddled. On the one hand, Fawzi indulges his story with fantastical, Felliniesque quips most evident in the posse of ghosts (including one modeled after Islamic televangelist Amr Khaled) that never leave Youssef’s side. It works at first, but as the tone veers progressively towards the melodrama, it immediately loses purpose as Fawzi toils to keep it in sync with the tonality of the film. The role of art in our present religious society, our crumbling education system and dysfunctional young relationships are real problems with real implications that are difficult to completely divorce from reality.
Lindsay Anderson, the unsung hero of British cinema, did it in 1968 with “If…. But the context was wholeheartedly surrealistic/allegorical. Anderson had the nerve, and imagination, to go all the way, delivering what remains to be the quintessential cinematic document on young, angry rebelliousness.
“Colors does contain some elements that bear resemblance to Anderson’s Palm d’Or winner, although its sense of anarchy is comparatively muted. Yet Fawzi, through and through, is stranded between two ends, undecided about which direction to head. The end result is a film that, for the most part, lacks believability, both dramatically and emotionally.
Fawzi’s company of young actors is also responsible for this lack of believability. Qassem is quite competent as the leading man – not competent enough though and doesn’t possess sufficient skills to properly modulate his temperaments. Lehner shows considerable promise in his first screen role, but his performance is largely irregular, ranging from the radiantly contemplative to the unreasonably exaggerated. Farah Youssef does her best within the limitations of her role.
Ferial Youssef is the most gifted of the bunch, keeping the keys to her character under wraps, working against Fawzi’s efforts to divulge everything too soon.
Performance-wise, the biggest disappointment of the film is the leading lady, Yousra El-Lozy. Having been entranced by her quirky performance in the short film “Obsession of the Depth a couple of years ago, I called El-Lozy Egyptian cinema’s future leading lady. After seeing her stumble three films in a row, I regretfully have to take that back.
El-Lozy, yet again, is excessively pale and bland. It doesn’t help when her character goes through a drastic transformation – from a broadminded, if somewhat reticent, artist to a face-veiled, guilt-ridden fanatic – that’s barely developed.
For a film expected to rely primarily on the visuals, it doesn’t shut up for a minute. The patchy, exposition-heavy dialogue, and countless monologues, is overbearing. Every emotion, idea and hidden motif is explicitly spelled out. I couldn’t help but feel trapped midway through, cornered in a tiny room and engulfed with a gush of speeches.
At the end, Fawzi uncomfortably reaches reconciliation between art and religion that never manages to convince. The battle between these two forces, expounded with more conviction in “Cinema, is one of the most pressing topics facing most Egyptian artists in a society where art is mostly looked down upon.
Instead of producing a fresh treatment of the subject, Fawzi crams his story with Bergman-esque monologues with God that lacks the subtlety, or profundity, of the Swedish master. The ecstasy of creation, the drive to fight the system, is subdued under an unsuccessful narrative that starts with big bang and ends in a puddle of conventions and stereotypes.