By Myriam Ghattas
Khaled Youssef’s “Kaf El Amar” (The Moon’s Palm; 2011) tells the story of a widowed mother, Amar, played by the actress Wafaa Amer, and of her five sons whom she entreats to leave their native rural village to establish themselves in the big city, Cairo.
The film’s introductory segment explains the mystifying title: Amar, whose name means moon in English, counts each finger off her palm for each one of her sons, wiling them before their initial departure to always remain strongly bound together as one inseparable unit.
The five brothers find random odd jobs around town under the patronage of their uncle and settle in a small shack in one of the city’s central popular districts — all in a day’s work. The eldest of the brothers, Zikry (Khaled Saleh), takes charge of the family clan, honoring the solemn promise made to his mother, and strives to maintain a patriarchal grip on them all, with disastrous results.
Zikry’s task meets its difficulties with run-of-the-mill complications as his brothers begin to carve their individual paths through life. Dahi (Yasser El Massri) falls in love with office girl Lobna (Jumana Murad) and becomes all too dedicated to matters of the heart. Gouda (Sabri Fawaz) finds his way to drugs and feels they could be maneuvered to turn a good profit. Bakr (Hassan El-Raddad) does not have much of a story other than that of his undying concern for his veggies cart. The youngest, Yassin (Haitham Ahmed Zaki), discovers a musically orientated vocation in the guise of folkloric Tanoora dancing, encouraged by a belly-dancer friend he meets and falls for, the sweetly sassy and seductive Safi (Houria Farghali).
None of these inclinations being much to Zikry’s liking, his attempted grip on his brothers turns out all too tight over time while he himself slowly drifts into dishonest dealings topped by a less than honorable lifestyle. Having plans of his own in mind, he eventually becomes estranged from the rest of them one after the other. Adding to his troubles is his problematic love interest and subsequent relationship with Gamila (Ghada Abdel Razeq), a woman from his home village.
Granted that the script, penned by Nasser Abdel Rahman of “Heya Fawda”, may appear to be reasonably complex and exciting on paper, yet the execution and end result leave much to be desired.
Starting off from a mere visual impact perspective, “Kaf El Amar” suffers from a glaring lack of authenticity bleeding all over its images.
The makeup, especially that of the aging Amar, is simply lamentable. The attention to detail is lacking, as evident for instance in the five brothers’ spotless wardrobe when the manner in which they wear them and their assigned jobs ought to have dirtied them rather quickly. The lighting of the scenes is oftentimes inappropriately theatrical, painting a contrived tableaux rather than credible settings. Many of the actors themselves, though undoubtedly skilled in their craft, appear to be utterly out of place in the story being told, denoting regrettable choices in casting.
Beyond the visual, Youssef treads dangerous grounds under the directorial hat. The structure of “Kaf El Amar” is in itself confusing as the film begins linearly before unexpectedly reverting to unneeded explanatory flashbacks in its second half, giving the impression once the initial confusion subsides that it is an episode from a television series that opens with a recap of pertinent events from previous episodes. The filmmaker even has recourse to the occasional intrusion of a flashy and quick thought that is meant to demonstrate a character’s dishonesty as they consider an offer, but really, can only be construed as expository, patronizing or comedic.
The film reads like a soap opera and the acting pattern adopted perpetrates that impression. The handling of female characters and performances portrays them as either weak or stupid, with the exception of Farghali’s. As for the men, outside of Zikry, their potentially rich characters are underdeveloped and they seem to serve more of a complementary function than any real purpose.
The stereotypes multiply turning what could have been an interesting character study into a superficial, condescending and hardly representative look into a segment of society. Forceful servings of southern dialect are used and abused to the point where the movie may need subtitles to avoid subjecting the spectator to too much guesswork.
Despite the many problems that “Kaf El Amar” displays, the film moves at a quick enough pace that there is hardly enough time to ponder its under achievements or experience boredom while watching it. Saleh’s performance in particular, though generic at the beginning of the film, is one of the few that are given enough screen time to shed their superficiality over the course of the narrative as he engages in a race against time at breakneck speed to unite the lost brothers. He dons a deeper and far more genuine impersonation that mandatorily makes the spectator empathize with his highly flawed character.
“Kaf El Amar” certainly has the merit of playing an entertaining mix of storytelling cards ranging from love, loss, revenge and action to include even a surprising musical sequence.
Khaled Youssef, long-time collaborator of the celebrated Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, has become a controversial household name whose films are self-proclaimed realistic depictions of common people, exploring the trials and tribulations of the lower social segments of society.
His latest progeny, “Kaf El Amar”, is ultimately a moving story of five grown men who struggle with themselves and one another to overcome their differences out of loving respect for their mother’s wishes. An ode to mothers by all means, the film would make a perfect gift for Mother’s Day.
The five brothers: Zikry (Khaled Saleh), Dahi (Yasser El Massri), Gouda (Sabri Fawaz), Yassin (Haitham Ahmed Zaki) and Bakr (Hassan El-Raddad).