At one point while I was growing up, our household turned into the arranged marriages headquarters; a neutral point where potential couples could meet, under the supervision of a guardian, who happened to be my mother. During this period, which lasted for several years, I met dozens of potential brides-to-be, most of whom where above the age of 30. I’ve listened to innumerable stories about failed engagements, financial difficulties, psychological and ethical anxieties and compromises.
I knew these women inside-out. Their stories had an inerasable impact on me, shaping my perception of the middle-class psyche, the society at large and the mendacious marriage institute that I’ve grown to loathe.
Perhaps that’s why I felt so agitated when watching Mohamed Amin’s third feature, “Beinteen men Masr” (Egyptian Maidens). An ingenuous tale of two spinsters (the word bachelorette doesn’t quite apply to this story) battling loneliness, desolation and the entire society, “Maidens” is possibly the most despairing film I’ve ever seen; a bleak, painful and cruel picture that sucked out every ounce of hope left in me.
Coming on the heels of Yousry Nasrallah’s “Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story,” the most accomplished filmic account of Egyptian women in modern era, Amin’s film lacks Nasrallah’s polished touch and confidence. “Egyptian Maidens” is flawed, unfocused, austere to a fault and largely unremarkable visually. Yet it’s deeply honest, highly compassionate and tremendously forceful.
Amin understands his characters’ pain, but he never exploits it for cheap sympathy. What tarnishes his film is his uncontrollable anger and palpable disdain towards both the oppressive governmental regime and the decaying society, veering his attention towards several marginal directions and overloading the main plot with an extra burden that drags the whole film down.
The two heroines of the film are Hanan (Ziena), a university librarian, and her cousin Dalia (Jordanian actress Saba Mubarak), a physician working in a public hospital. Both have crossed the age of 30, both are single, and both provide for their little fatherless families.
Hanan is the more proactive of the two. When she’s not glaring over young couples and daydreaming of blissful marriage, she’s constantly scheming up for attracting the attention of prospective grooms, using benign, callow tactics that either backfire or go nowhere. Hanan — who was previously engaged at 27 but broke it off for financial reasons — registers in a marriage service, setting exceedingly low requirements that she keeps reducing as she grows more desperate.
She purchases garments and neatly stocks them in her closet in wait for the day she gets married. And in one of the most talked about scenes of the film, she pretends to breastfeed a friend’s baby.
Dalia’s emotional and sexual hunger is no less intense than her cousin’s. Like Hanan, she’s never had any real relationships with any man, not even friendship. She struggles to finish her Masters as her supervisor pushes her to join “the government party.”
Their relationships with the opposite sex seem to be doomed from the start, compounded by endless social factors that render men apathetic and impotent. Dalia joins an opposition party, warms up to one of its young leaders (Ramy Wahid) only to find out that he’s an NDP spy (one of the many political stretches of the story). She later gets engaged to an agricultural engineer (Tarek Lotfy), but her brief flirtation with happiness proves to be short-lived. Even her short, comforting conversations with an anonymous blogger (a scene-stealing Ahmed Wafiq) cease to endure.
Same goes for Hanan. Her attempts to draw the interest of one her colleagues eventually fall flat when she discovers that he’s attracted to her younger office coworker. Her engagement to Khaled (the weakest, most inconsistent character of the film) grows sour when he demands an “honor inspection,” checking whether she’s still a virgin or not.
The film’s various episodes are punctuated with long, sad gazes by its two starlets reflecting their yearnings, solitude and frustration. Dalia and Hanan’s profound craving for marriage is firmly tied with a fear of dying alone, of not experiencing motherhood, of continuing to descend in this bottomless pit of pointlessness and banality. “Everything we wished for never came true,” the blogger tells Dalia.
In perhaps the most heartbreaking scene of the movie, Dalia breaks down when the blogger shows her, probably for the first time in her life, the slightest signs of care and concern (the scene could’ve been much more impactful though had she remained silent).
Dalia and Hanan’s dreams are simple: a basic need for love and fulfillment. Their conservative background and religious upbringing act as a barrier, preventing them from seeking contentment elsewhere, like Dalia’s colleague, Hoida, who resorts to urfi marriage to quench her sexual thirst.
Amin skillfully points out that their predicaments are inseparable from the overwhelmingly grand storm of dejection and powerlessness the entire nation is trapped in. In a radical change of direction, Amin — who rose to fame with hit social satire “Film Thakafy” and black comedy “Laylat Soqoot Baghdad” (The Night Baghdad Fell) — abandons comedy for a drama with few moments of relief.
Amin paints a stark, grim picture of Egypt devoid of any hope. All men are desperate to leave the country (a considerable chunk of the film is set at the airport), and Amin gives no justification whatsoever for them to do otherwise. His characters’ devotion to religion is quite reasonable; there’s no respite in this world. But even religion cannot relieve their everlasting torment.
In order to conjure a comprehensive portrait of the Dalia and Hanan’s world, Amin forces every conceivable social malaise into the story, and that’s when the film starts to fall apart.
At times, “Egyptian Maidens” appears as a dense compilation of news headlines. Amin doesn’t leave anything behind, throwing into the mix election frauds, corruption, unemployment, sinking ferries, protests and sit-ins, police torture, crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood and of course, the NDP. The politics of the film are extremely naïve and shallow (sometimes laughable even), essentially restricted to police arrest of any remote opposition. Not only does Amin’s misguided approach distract from the pair’s story, it redirects the emotional center of the story towards other unnecessary fragments that condenses its wallop. In addition, by denying his characters any tangible moments of joy, Amin’s story loses authenticity in parts, reaching an insufferably derivative climax that adds nothing much to the drama.
Amin has always been found lacking in the visual department and “Maidens” doesn’t improve this reputation. Devoid almost entirely of much needed symbolism, “Maidens’” look is minimal and uncluttered, but also flat and occasionally tedious. Apart from a few beautiful compositions here and there, the film contains no visual flourishes, relying too heavily on dialogue.
The dearth of visual flair is counterbalanced by top notch performances that save the film. Nearly every member of the cast is in the best form of his career, displaying incredible depth they’ve rarely exhibited before. Zeina in particular continues her ascent to maturation with her upbeat, empathetic characterization of a woman gradually damaged by forces she cannot control.
It’s Mubarak though who owns the film, delivering one of the most powerful female performances of recent years. She lays bare her character’s apprehension, joy, envy and anger with the slightest look, gesture or smile. There’s a strong intensity in Mubarak’s eyes I’ve seldom witnessed in Egyptian screens before; a burning fire no force can seem to extinguish.
I left the “Egyptian Maidens” with a crushing sense of hopelessness I’ve never experienced so acutely before and for a minute; I couldn’t help considering leaving my home-country. Amin makes a good argument that there is no hope indeed left here, that the downward spiral the country has descended is inexorable. Like any other nation though, life in here is not that black and white, and there are few things left to savor, that Egyptian women are not as helpless as the film depicts them. But the problems are real, the feelings are real and the overpowering mood of surrender and resignation is very, very real.
Hanan, played by Zeina.