Whenever I mentioned gifted director Yousry Nasrallah in this column, I always referred to him as one of two greatest living Egyptian filmmakers. The other one has been conspicuously absent for nearly a decade; his last film released in 2001.
But now he’s back, and what a comeback it is. With “Rasayel El Bahr (Messages from the Sea), Daoud Abdel Sayed has created the first Egyptian masterpiece of the new decade; a stunningly beautiful meditation on existence, memory, love and social disintegration; a breathtaking excursion into an inimitable place only a real visionary like Abdel Sayed can create.
Palpable assets of the film aside, what elevates “Messages to the ranks of the greats is the intrinsic, melancholic visual poetry Abdel Sayed creates, the elegiac mood he weaves with awe-inspiring tenderness, and the profound compassion he shows for his characters and everything they represent. “Messages is the work of a genuine artist, thinker and, above all, a humanitarian.
The film contains no tangible plot in the conventional sense. There is a central story, a loose conflict and a vague hint of a resolution. But “Messages is no plot-driven vehicle and Abdel Sayed is not interested in cajoling the audience with a yarn; “Messages is a character-based mood-piece; a reverie containing all his signature themes, both the philosophical – uncertainty of life, the futile search for meaning, the multifaceted nature of desire, and the wide chasm between dreams and reality – and the social – the rise of nouveau riche, abolition of minorities, and eradication of the country’s collective memory.
There is little character development; Abdel Sayed closely watches his characters as they walk, talk and respond to fate, a force constantly in play in his films. Nothing is schematic about his characters, nothing calculated.
Asser Yassin’s Yehia is the doppelganger of Nour El-Sherif’s naïve, idealistic loner of Abdel Sayed’s second feature, “The Search for Sayed Marzouk; a new member of his ever-expanding clan of misfits that also include Mahmoud Abdel Aziz’s character in “The Vagabonds, Youssef in “Kit Kat and the other Yehia from “Land of Fear.
A medical school graduate, Yehia has been afflicted all his life with a speech disorder that rendered him the butt of jokes of both his patients and his colleagues. His ailment has forced him to withdraw from the world, or perhaps to rebel against life altogether.
When his last close relative passes on, he returns to the family’s old flat in Alexandria, unsure of, or indifferent to, the life-course he should lead. Having no strength to continue enduring further humiliation, he decides against working in medicine, opting instead to be an aimless fisherman. Upon his return to Alexandria, he gets acquainted with various characters, including the intimidating-looking, but benevolent guard of a nightclub Abeel (Mohammed Lotfy) and the new owner of his building, Haj Hashem (Salah Abdallah), who’s adamant on buying out the last remaining tenants and turning it into a shopping mall.
Yehia tries to rekindle his romance with former flame/old neighbor Carla (newcomer Samia Assad in the sole uneven performance of the film), an Italian fashionista born and raised in Alexandria. He convinces himself to have fallen in love with her again. Yehia is a hermit by default, an outsider seeking acceptance. He glimpses it in his short-lived reunion with Carla, but soon realizes that nothing can happen between them because simply, Carla is no longer interested in men.
The most enduring relationship he forges is with Nora (Basma), an enigmatic prostitute he becomes infatuated with.
Like Carla, Nora is drawn to Yehia’s purity; his guilelessness and warmth. “A sip of water in the middle of thirst, she describes him.
Taking a leaf out of Patrice Chéreau’s “Intimacy and Mike Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas (a favorite of Abdel Sayed’s), their relationship starts as sexual in principle. For Yehia though, sex is no outlet for pleasure; it’s a mean to connect to another soul, for companionship, and eventually, he falls in love with Nora.
Love begets possession, possession begets obsession. Yehia demands more, Nora doesn’t. As their liaison grows more complex, secrets begin to surface.
Abdel Sayed has always held a cynical view towards love. Both Carla and Nora join a long list of unattainable heroines. Love, like everything in Abdel Sayed’s universe, is elusive and unpredictable. The male friendship is more stable, more enduring.
Carla chooses lust over true love. In the real world, in the one here and now, temptation triumphs over love; love, pureness of heart, is another relic of a time gone by.
Alexandria, as seen by Abdel Sayed, is a giant graveyard of a great, dead civilization. Each character represents a lost part of the old Alexandria. Yehia is an artifact of the age of innocence; Carla and her mother (played by renowned documentary filmmaker Nabiha Lotfy) are the perishing minorities living in the shadow of the past, wrestling to subset in a deformed metropolis they no longer belong in; Nora is one of the last survivors of the middle-class that has been wiped out by Sadat’s ill-calculated open-door policy; Abeel is the powerless proletariat attempting to revolt against the solitary occupation he was born to carry out.
Every force operating in this decayed climate, from the economical to the faux-religious, work with resolute will to uproot these characters, the essence of old Alexandria, from their habitat, throwing them into the abyss of the present; to obliterate our entire collective memory.
The question Abdel Sayed puts forward via Abeel’s tongue is this: Is it possible to remain the same person if all your memories are wiped out? Wouldn’t you disappear? How far can we dissociate ourselves from our past? And if we do, what does remain of our distorted history?
In the midst of this chaos that Yehia can’t fathom, or adapt to, he finds a message in a bottle floating on the sea. The message is written in ancient language Yehia can’t decipher. He hands it to countless people from every walk of life; still no one can work it out.
His quest to understand the written content of the message is, in many ways, an emblem of an endless search for meaning in his senseless world; a mirage he’s instinctively drawn to.
The multiple layers of the film are held together by a strong emotional thread realized by the superb cast who all give career-best performances. Mohammed Lotfy, seldom regarded as a serious actor, injects his character with aptly-handled mix of humor and pathos.
Basma, who has never looked lovelier, finally fulfills the potential she showed in her earlier works with a character whose motifs remain undisclosed until the very end of the movie. Age has served her well in this role. Her weary eyes have cast a large shadow over her once youthful baby features; the heavy weight her character carries can be detected in every inch of her face.
This is primarily Yassin’s film though and in Yehia, he gives his best screen performance to date. Few Egyptian actors can do vulnerability with such delicacy and conviction. Yassin’s Yehia is a man who has been degraded all his life yet never lost his dignity, a broken man with profound yearnings and unrealistic expectations. The schism between his frailty and pride produces some of the most heartbreaking moments of the film.
“Messages is not flawless. As gorgeous as his dialogue is, Abdel Sayed, on few occasions, overuses words for clarifying easily-deduced plot details; a narrative strategy he adopted 20 years ago since “Sayed Marzouk failed to make an impression in the box-office. “Messages is like an imperfect woman you fall in love with; you ultimately come to accept its flaws provided that you fully immerse yourself in this experience. There’s something so genuine about “Messages; even the few moments where the tone slightly veers towards clumsiness – Yehia animatedly strolling in an empty street after realizing he’s in love with Carla, a client seducing Carla – are rendered from a
Atheistically, “Messages is Abdel Sayed’s most perfectly composed picture to date, an element frequently missing from his previous outings. He relies mostly on medium-shots and close-ups and interior locations, maintaining the focus on the characters’ inner world, keeping them at bay from reality. Danger always lurks in the outside world framed via wide-shots. The soft lighting induces a dream-like quality sustained throughout the film.
Few Egyptian films have left me so elated like “Messages from the Sea. Here’s a film abundant with profound, urgent ideas tackled in an understated, non-confrontational approach. Several Egyptian films of late have attempted to explore our relationship with our past; the moral dissonance between who we are now and who we once were. Almost none have succeeded as perfectly in realizing those themes in such an inimitable, captivating context as “Messages does.