One of the highlights of my week has been “Le premier jour du reste de ta vie” (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life), a little French family drama that left me entranced. Rémi Bezançon’s 2008 production is not your average art-house curiosity title; this is an unabashedly sentimental story crafted with the kind of care and fineness that have become almost a rarity in mainstream cinema.
Bezançon’s film is accessible entertainment steeped in American cultural. It doesn’t offer any tangible artistic innovations, but it’s deeply moving, beautifully constructed and, most important of all, it’s non-manipulative. Simply put, “First Day” is thoroughly satisfying drama, something, I’m starting to believe, Egyptian cinema is incapable of producing these days.
My latest foray at the multiplexes, which led me to Ahmed El-Sakka’s latest actioner “El Dealer,” is a case in point. Fifty-years ago, the quintessentially Egyptian combination of crime and melodrama was a guiding norm for numerous established filmmakers, realized to perfection with blink of an eye. In this day and age, not only has this formula rusted, it’s quite clear that the vast majority of new filmmakers have learned nothing from the old masters.
But the bigger questions “El Dealer” raises are: Have we run out of fresh ideas? Does Egypt, home of the largest film industry in the Middle East, no longer know how to create proper, quality entertainment?
Its grave logistical lapses aside, “El Dealer” is not strictly bad, theoretically at least. Dramatically, it flows quite well, and production values are top-notch. The problem is it’s too mediocre, too conventional, and too irrelevant. In many ways, “El Dealer” resembles one of those newly abandoned Dubai skyscrapers; shiny and alluring from the outside and empty from the inside.
The wannabe crime saga centers on Youssef El-Sheikh (El-Sakka) and his life-long battle with his arch-nemesis Ali El-Halawany (Khaled El-Nabawy). Like last year’s sordid “Ibrahim Al-Abyad” (also starring El-Sakka), the two children of poverty are born and raised in a Cairian slum with no prospects. How did the two become enemies is never explained; directorAhmed Saleh chooses instead to frame his story as a Greek tragedy, cornering his two leads into the good and bad boxes.
With nothing much to do and nowhere to go, Ali and Youssef turn to petty crime as their paths continue to intertwine. Ali finds a way out of the country through his pregnant girlfriend, Samah (Jordanian pop singer May Selim in her first screen role), escorting to her to Ukraine with her dance company. As he prepares departure, he executes one last act of vengeance against Youssef that leaves him in prison.
What ensues is some kind of a cat and mouse game that’s not entirely a cat and mouse game. Youssef and Ali go their separate ways, starting afresh in Ukraine and Turkey respectively. Eventually, Ali is hired a bodyguard for a major arms dealer before he starts climbing up the rankings and turns into one himself.
Youssef, on the other hand, turns to drug dealing, and like his pigheaded foe, goes the distance and becomes a drug titan. The trails of the two are somewhat identical; the key difference is that Youssef sticks by the code of friendship, honor and all that yada yada while Ali murders, cheats and backstabs his way to the top. Naturally, both are punished at the exceedingly trite ending with Youssef receiving the lesser penalty for being more docile.
In the hands of more adept scriptwriter (scriber Medhat Al-Adl is the same man who gave previous masterpieces such as “Hamam in Amersterdam” “Ashab wala Business” and “Mafia”) and an actual director, “El Dealer” could’ve possibly worked. But neither El-Adl nor Saleh have the aptitude, or interest, to create anything remotely original. What we get instead is something akin to an ailing steed marching slowly towards its inexorable death.
As I mentioned, the drama does progress with relative ease, yet there are several weaknesses, if not flaws, that resonate strongly later on. For instance, the back story of Samah and Youssef’s relationship is only mentioned but never fully explained. Thus the rapport between the couple not only feels feeble but is utterly unconvincing. It also doesn’t help when Selim and El-Sakka have zero chemistry.
Same goes with Youssef and Ali, whose enmity towards one other is simplistic. And because of that, in addition to the one-dimensional characterization and the predictability of their actions, you do not feel an ounce of sympathy towards either of them. In fact, there aren’t any likable or sympathetic characters in the entire film.
As the story reaches its final climax, all logic is left behind. We discover that Ali, in the span of few years, has become a popular politician and a presidential candidate, and that’s when the film starts to assault the intelligence of the audience.
“El Dealer” is wrapped in a bathetic halo; nothing about it feels genuine — plot, performances, visuals … nothing. Like “Ibrahim Al-Abyad,” it employs minor social strands to inject a sense of purpose and contemporariness to the tired story, but claiming that “El Dealer” is a commentary on the wretched Egyptian economy that forces youth to abandon the country is no different than saying that the rift inside the French national football team mirrors the current state of unrest inside French society. Both are baseless and unrepresentative of the whole picture.
Aesthetically, director Saleh brings no embellishments to an otherwise wide palette that begs for adornment. The Ukraine and Turkey settings are rich, yet, strangely, Saleh makes no effort to integrate the milieu into the story. The film has absolutely no sense of place; both nations appear indistinguishable in here. The underground culture you’d assume a film with a LE27-million-budget would explore head-on is not even approached; the lack of any detail is not only infuriating, but perplexing.
Everything about the film is half-hearted. The action lacks vigor and energy, the tension is non-existent, while the trappings of the melodrama alienate the rightfully apathetic viewers.
The less that is said about the performances the better. El-Sakka proves once again that his unexpectedly magnetic turn in Sherif Arafa’s “The Island” was a fluke, delivering a lame, mechanical performance devoid of emotions. As Youssef’s faithful henchman Farahat, Nadal El Shafae struggles to bring in some seriousness to what essentially is a Scorsese caricature. Selim, on the other hand, is downright dreadful; an amateur player oblivious to her limitations.
El-Nabawy does shine every now and then, but the absence of any ambiguities in his character ultimately renders his performance monotonic.
While making his game-changing masterpiece “The 400 Blows,” late great French filmmaker François Truffaut said that “the idea isn’t to create some new and different cinema, but to make the existing one more true.” My main issue with “El Dealer” is that there isn’t a single moment that rings true.
A strong stench of lack of talent reeks from every frame of El Sakka’s second flop in a row. It’s languid, arid and incredibly pedestrian. “El Dealer” is the perfect symptom of current state of cultural bankruptcy. The spark of excitement that defined the best Egyptian crime films of the 40s, 50s and 60s has long been extinguished, replaced with trifle market considerations and undemanding formulas. In a barren year for mainstream Egyptian cinema, “El Dealer” marks a new low. “Black Honey,” by comparison, doesn’t look that bad anymore.