Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Timeless Gems

Samia Gamal and Farid l'Atrache in Afrita Hanem (Genie Lady, 1950)

This luminous masterpiece is a zany barrel of laughs, with beautiful cinematography and an exceptionally talented cast. Even the extras are perfect, thanks to the one and only Henry Barakat’s masterful direction. It’s 1949, and talented but down-at-the-heels singer Asfour (Farid l’Atrache) is madly in love with cabaret dancer Aliyya Nawnaw (Loula Sidqi), but her shrewd father and teatro owner Fadel Eshta (the inimitable Stéfan Rosti) has no patience for anyone without cash. Naturally, Eshta favours the loaded and impeccably dressed suitor Mimi bey, played by the great Abdel Salam al-Nabulsi uttering his staccato and exuberant “Buono! Buono!”

Unlike the chic Mimi and his swanky chauffeured mobile, Asfour lives in a humble pension run by the kind and quirky Sitt Warda (Zeinat Sidqi). His roommate, confidant, and best friend is fellow performer Boqo (Ismail Yasin), who helps Asfour put on his best and go ask Eshta for Aliyya’s hand. One of my all-time favourite scenes in Egyptian film is when Boqo, Asfour and a couple of other quirks go to get Asfour’s shoes shined, and a fight erupts between two shoeshiners who make off with Asfour’s shoes, leaving him with nothing but his holey socks. Even though I’ve long memorised this scene, I always crack up when one of Asfour’s friends helpfully points out (after the fact), “Ya khabar eswed, da saraq al-gazma!!”

Dejected and saddened by Eshta’s curt rejection, Asfour goes for a solitary walk (during which he just happens to break into song). Then out of thin air, a mysterious elderly sage appears and directs him to the location of a genie lamp. Asfour drags the terrified Boqo to the designated cave where they find the lamp and are scared out of their wits by what happens next. Out of the lamp emerges the beautiful genie Kahramana (Samia Gamal), visible only to Asfour, while the plastic-faced Boqo whimpers and cries and begs his crazy friend to let them go home. The mischievous Kahramana bears an uncanny resemblance to the lead dancer Semsema in Asfour’s teatro. The moral of the story (of course it has to have a moral, it’s a 1940s Egyptian film) is that we shouldn’t dwell on fantasies and dreams and miss out on all the good things right in front of us.

I love this movie’s hilarious dialogue and the artistry in every scene, thanks to the cinematography of Julio de Luca. I love the vintage 1940s elegance, complete with the severely set women’s hairdos and men’s high-waisted pants (I’m always shocked at exactly how far up his waist Farid l’Atrache’s pants are). I love the gratuitous musical scenes, especially Farid’s lyrical performance of the song al-Rabi’ (The Spring) with women throwing down rose petals from their balconies and dancing around him in their incongruous white gowns and bonnets. And even though it’s a totally Orientalist fantasy, I love the scene where Kahramana tries to seduce Asfour in the Moorish palace. It’s a beautiful cinematic symphony of textures, subtle lighting, and Samia Gamal’s graceful undulations. I couldn’t care less what the scene is supposed to subliminally signify or what its intertextual references are bla bla bla. I’m perfectly happy to enjoy it at face value.