Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The great Yusuf Wahbi (left) feigns a heart attack in Isha'et
Hubb (Rumour of Love, 1961)

If this film is on TV, I will always drop whatever I’m doing and sit down and laugh until my stomach muscles hurt. This is definitely my absolute favourite Egyptian feel good film. I don’t know what makes it so great, but it’s probably the amazing cast assembled by Egypt’s premier director of comedy, Fatin Abdel Wahab (1913-1972).

The story is set in beautiful Port Said, where Abdel Qader al-Nashashqi (Yusuf Wahbi) is a wealthy importer-exporter who spends his time bickering with his shrewish, aristocratic wife Bahiga Saltah Baba and wooing girls at the beachside club. Running the family business is left up to Abdel Qader’s dry and ultra-serious nephew Hussein (Omar al-Sherif). Hussein is an inveterate square who spurns all social conventions; he sports ill-fitting suits and unbecoming coke bottle glasses and can’t tell a white lie to save his life. Port Saidi debutantes want nothing to do with him and he returns the favour. Abdel Qader’s other nephew Mahrous (the hilarious Abdel Moneim Ibrahim) is the complete opposite of Hussein, lighthearted and always willing to lie and scheme to cover for his uncle’s dalliances.

One summer, Abdel Qader’s household is set in a flurry of excitement when his only daughter Samiha (Soad Hosni) comes home from Cairo, her chic male cousin Lucy in tow. Lucy is an operetta-singing dandy who speaks perfect, Hollywood English (“pleased to meet you, baby”) but has actually just returned from Europe with a “Master’s degree in dancing,” as Samiha proudly informs her father. Abdel Qader replies, “Mash’allah, mash’allah, afarem alayk ya si Lucy!” But he can’t stand the man (“looking at you gives me indigestion!”) and wants to thwart his wife’s plan to marry him off to Samiha. The entire movie is Abdel Qader’s hilarious plotting to make Samiha fall in love with Hussein, who’s secretly in love with her but doesn’t want to admit it. The scene where Abdel Qader instructs Hussein how to flirt, with Mahrous acting as the girl, will always put me in stitches. Playing notable supporting roles are Raga’ al-Giddawi as Samiha’s fluffy best friend and the vivacious Widad Hamdi as the family maid Folla. I don’t know the name of the actor who plays Lucy “ibn tante Fakiha,” but he’s superb.

Yusuf Wahbi is amazing to watch in this film. For some reason, I always thought he was ponderous and melodramatic given his stage background (he’s one of the pioneers of Arab theater), but in this film he is simply delightful, providing much of its comic energy. Especially entertaining are his ridiculous attempts to make Hussein “Port Said’s Valentino,” his sly send-ups of his own rousing theater performances, his mangling of Khawaga Vlavlavlakis’s name, and his insincere compliments about Bahiga Hanem’s atrocious crêpes! Surprisingly, Omar al-Sherif is also genuinely funny, a testament to Fatin Abdel Wahab’s considerable directorial gifts. The cameos by Hind Rostom and football player Adel Haykal (playing themselves) carry the film to its side-splittingly funny denouement, with a warm tribute to the theatre at the very end.