There are many remarkable things about Du'a al-Karawan (The Nightingale's Call, 1959), but to me the most remarkable of all is the masterful depiction of internal turmoil, where the two lead characters experience significant changes over the course of the film. The headstrong Amna (Faten Hamama, left) and the bachelor engineer (the debonair Ahmad Mazhar) undergo several personal transformations, questioning who they are and what they believe in the process of interacting with each other until the tragic denouement. The film follows a perfect Aristotelian arc. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen any film, not just an Egyptian film, that is such a powerful portrait of conflicted inner states. Of course comedic 1940s films were all about character transformation too, mostly lower-class characters learning to live with (and love) their impoverished lot, but there was never any surprise or subtlety as to where the characters would end up, and the process of transformation was a vehicle for laugh and song but never introspection or self-knowledge.
Perhaps it’s because it’s a literary adaptation that Du’a al-Karawan is such an extraordinary film. Based on the novel of the same name by Taha Hussein and directed by the magnificent and prolific Henry Barakat (1912-1997), the plot revolves around the tragic trio of Amna, her beloved older sister Hanadi (Zahrat al-‘Ula), and their suffering mother Zohra (Amina Rizq). Barakat of course also directed Hamama in another literary adaptation rich in feeling and ambiguity, al-Haram (The Sin, 1965), based on Yusuf Idris’s novel. Both films are exemplars of the use of cinematic form and texture to heighten the drama. I’m always struck by the evocation of loss and tragedy in the rich black garbs donned by the protagonists in both films, the skillful manipulation of shadow and perspective to echo the characters’ inner states, and the haunting portrayal of the vistas of the Egyptian countryside. Each scene is painting-perfect, especially the high, windswept palm trees in Du’a al-Karawan. Seems to me contemporary Egyptian films don’t speak the language of cinema anymore, preferring to be driven by maudlin and derivative storylines.
The film opens with Amna brooding alone at night in a quiet house with only the sound of the ticking clock. Her life story unfolds through a long flashback punctuated by her quiet voice-over narration. Amna and her sister Hanadi are carefree young girls until tragedy strikes: their adulterous father is killed by vengeful local cuckolds. The grieving Zohra and her two daughters are forced to leave their tradition-bound Upper Egyptian village and to earn a living elsewhere, egged on by her ruthless brother Gaber (Abdel Alim Khattab). In a breathtaking scene of the fall, the three women roam the countryside on foot carrying nothing but their humble belongings and their sense of loss and fear. They settle in a small town, and the comely Amna and Hanadi are lucky to find jobs as live-in maids at the houses of the town’s police chief and engineer. Levity returns for a brief spell and the girls are delighted by the townspeople’s modern ways. The guileless Amna is kindly treated by her employers as a sister to their pampered only child Khadiga (Raga’ al-Geddawi), but Hanadi falls for her employer the dashing bachelor, and is soon burdened with an unmentionable secret. Zohra decides to leave town quickly to escape the shame, and the blighted threesome roams the countryside again, carrying the terrible secret between them. Zohra is bitter and angry at Hanadi, but Amna is full of compassion and love for her older sister.
The death of Hanadi at the hands of her cruel uncle Gaber spurs Amna’s first transformation into a withdrawn, grieving creature “living with ghosts” and hell bent on revenge. She escapes from Zohra’s side, returns to her welcoming employers, and begins to plot her revenge against the nonchalant engineer. In one of Egyptian cinema’s most powerful scenes, Zohra loses her proud and taciturn demeanour and roams the countryside, barefoot and distraught, imploring pitying passersby if they’ve seen her two beautiful daughters. Great thespian that she was, Amina Rizq endowed Zohra’s predicament with the depth of irreconcilable grief.
Meanwhile, Amna secures a job as the maid in the engineer’s house, with the help of the brash but kindhearted Zanouba (Mimi Shakib), who instructs her in the arts of guile and ensnarement. The story’s subsequent twists and turns are full of sophisticated psychological drama and amazing dialogue, where you can literally see the internal conflict and creeping transformations on the two great actors’ faces. Amna experiences several more metamorphoses until the film’s melodramatic and tragic denouement, and even the cad engineer embodied so perfectly by Mazhar becomes a sympathetic and pitiable real person. The film’s original trailer had it right: Du’a al-Karawan is “a gem, pulsing with life.”