A large cloud of skepticism and anxiety ominously loom over this year’s summer cinema season, the shortest in more than a decade. With only seven films scheduled for release over the next two months, the remarkably diminutive 2010 slate offers little of the fanfare that have made summer the most lucrative season of the cinematic calendar.
As usual, competition between the two monopolizing distribution giants, Arabeya Company and Oscar/Nasr/Massa, over moviegoers’ pockets is as heated as ever. But while the trio have decided to stick to their guns, putting all their efforts (and marketing money) behind their slew of bona-fide hitters (Ahmed Helmy, Ahmed El-Sakka, Mohamed Saad); Arabeya has taken a notably more daring approach, opening the season with three adult dramas: Ahmad Abdallah’s “Heliopolis,” Magdy Ahmed Ali’s “Nile Birds” and Ahmed Ghanem’s “Telka Al-Ayam” (Such Days).
Of the three, “Such Days” has generated the most buzz. Based on the well-received, but largely overlooked, 1960s novel by revered journalist and novelist Fathy Ghanem, the film examines the contentious relationship between authority and power via three dysfunctional characters: A university professor, his free-spirited wife and a young retired police officer.
In adapting his father’s novel, Ghanem, in his feature directorial debut, wields all three interweaving storylines into a seemingly intricate web controlled by the unseen corrupted system.
While the ideas are admirable, “Such Days” doesn’t succeed in translating Ghanem Senior’s vision into a coherent, and convincing, cinema. Within the context of Ghanem’s adaptation, the ideas feel stale, dated even; the politics trifle and puerile; the drama anemic and jaded. Everything in the film is oversimplified; politics, ideas and, to a lesser extent, relationships.
Mahmoud Hemeida is Dr. Salem Ebied, a prominent university professor and a writer with close ties to both the government and the US. Holding a dual citizenship (Egyptian and American), Salem is the authority’s closeted mouthpiece; a genteel puppet who sold his soul to the highest bidder. Salem’s latest suitor is the Prime Minister (Adel Amin) who promises him a seat in the new cabinet in order to keep him closely under the government’s wing.
Salem’s wife, Amira (newcomer Laila Samy), is part of his carefully sustained veneer; young, sophisticated and pretty. The reality is radically different from the show she must put on every day. Laila is a sad, alcoholic rebel who may, or may not, be involved in multiple affairs. She despises her husband, but her addiction to wealth and security keeps her chained to his side.
As their marriage continues to disintegrates, Ahmed El-Feshawy’s traumatized cop Ali El-Naggar enters the picture. Earlier in his career, El-Feshawy joined the combat forces that helped to eradicate the wave of terrorism that swept the South in the 90s. Unable to escape his guilt over the atrocities he’s committed in the name of law and justice, Ali withdraws from the world, hiding inside his tiny office-supplements store.
Ali is temporary recalled back to the world by Salem who requests his expertise for a book he’s authoring about terrorism. Amira is instantly attracted to Ali whom, she later remembers, had saved her years ago during a terror raid. Alarm bells starts to ring as the bond between Amira and Ali deepens.
Through a series of poorly conceived, cliché-encrusted flashbacks, Ghanem gradually lays down the back-stories of his characters. Salem was once an impassioned revolutionary who sold his principles, and comrades, the day he was detained by the national security thugs.
Before becoming Mrs. Ebied, Amira was an ordinary university student in love with a fellow colleague who lost his life during the aforementioned terror raid. Like Salem, she sells her soul, and body, for the riches offered by her husband.
Ali, the weakest link of the three, decided to join the force to avenge his murdered partner. Theoretically, all three lives have been shaped, and deformed, by their grave compromises. This broad moral failure that Ghanem Sr. captured so vividly in Ghanem’s novel, alas, feels lost on screen.
Part of the problem lies in the exceedingly archetypical characters that have been exhausted to death over the past 50 years in both cinema and television. Hemeida’s spineless, opportunistic professor is directly drawn from Salah Abouseif’s “Al-Kahira Thalathin” (Cairo 30), Samir Seif’s “Ma’ali Al-Wazir” (His Excellency the Minister) and even Ghanem’s more known work, “El-Ragol El-Lazi Fakad Zilloh” (The Man Who Lost His Shadow), to name a few.
While Ghanem’s themes remain as contemporary as ever, Ghanem Jr. brings nothing new to the table with this adaptation. Updating the story to include the imposing position of the US in Egyptian politics doesn’t warrant the film any extra depth, urgency or significance. And neither is the neutral, or rather the pusillanimous, role Egypt plays in international politics. Even the single most thought-provoking idea Salem cunningly devices — the disregard of the Palestinian cause as a religious one — doesn’t echo anywhere in the story.
His take on guilt and trauma is tired and shallow, wedged in Hollywood conventions. More erroneously, Ghanem eschews the question of duty versus responsibility. Not once does Ghanem grant Ali any remote validity for his actions. Terrorists, glimpsed in a few scenes, are depicted as causalities of Ali’s blinding rage. The entire subject of terrorism is essentially reduced to a footnote.
Another problem lies in characterization. All three principle players have made morally dubious choices; both Ali and Amira choose to redeem themselves eventually. Salem doesn’t, and ultimately, he must confront his failings. Thus, in many ways, “Such Days,” becomes a morality tale sans the intervention of a higher, punishing force.
Hemeida’s underdeveloped character remains mostly flat throughout the film. Ghanem doesn’t subject him to the moral fluctuations Ali and Amira are inflicted with. Salem doesn’t question his actions, nor does Ghanem give him the space to justify them. He appears sedated all the way through the end when a narrow portal to his soul is finally unlocked.
Atheistically, Ghanem, without a doubt, has a keen eye for frame composition. Complemented by Ahmed Abdel Aziz sublime cinematography, Ghanem imbues his scenes with poetic beauty that occasionally eclipses the feeble action. Nearly all interior shots are dimly lit; his characters hence emerge as slaves imprisoned in their personal dungeons: Salem in his polluted ideas, Amira in her shame and self-disgust and Ali with his non-departing demons.
In several intervals of the film, Ghanem’s glitches overshadow these virtues. The most obvious, and irritating, anomaly of the film is the overuse of Abdo Dagher’s score which suffocates nearly every scene. Action sequences, particularly the chases, are clumsily executed; the scene where Ali sees his victims flying over his windshield à la “Jacob’s Ladder” is quite laughable.
Ghanem’s miscalculations are even more evident in the acting department. Not surprisingly, veteran star Hemeida steals the film with his effortless naturalism and charm, lending a tint of sympathy and humanity to a rather static, two-dimensional character.
On the polar opposite is Samy, whose artificial, stiff performance stands in a jarring contrast to Hemeida’s. Sporting a distracting accent, Samy rarely shines, failing to interpret the complexities of her character. Her scenes with El-Feshawy, still straddled to his non-diminishing American accent, are especially lifeless, desperately lacking spark.
El-Feshawy is torn between the two, radiating his character’s wounded, downhearted spirit with remarkable aplomb in some of the best scenes in his career and appearing wooden in others.
“Such Days” is an earnest, but toothless political drama lacking fervor and originality. None of the themes it explores are fresh; none of its ideas are truly enlightening. And despite the topicality of the subject at hand, the film — I regret to report — feels irrelevant, hampered by a humdrum drama that seldom engages.
The last genuinely accomplished political drama Egyptian cinema has witnessed was Seif’s “His Excellency the Minister” seven years ago, and judging by this movie and present state of Egyptian film, the prospect of another one seems years away.
Scenes of Ahmed El-Feshawy and newcomer Laila Samy desperately lacking spark.