A film that fails to fulfill its potential: Villa 69
Courtesy: Ayten Amin

“Villa 69,” which is currently playing in cinemas, incorporates a number of familiar faces from the non-mainstream Egyptian film scene.

It’s the first feature film directed by Ayten Amin, who has worked on films such as Amr Salama’s “Zay al-Naharda” (2008) and directed one of three segments of the documentary “Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician” (2011). Khaled Abol Naga, a stalwart of movies produced outside of the couple of main big film companies, is the star. Veteran director Khairy Bashara, “Asmaa” (2011) director Amr Salama, and “Villa 69” screenwriter Muhammed El Hajj each have cameos. Emerging filmmaker Heba Yousry and accordionist Youssra El Hawary also have roles.  

It’s a shame then that it’s not very good.

The movie has a familiar plot: Family members move in with a grumpy old relative and find out he’s got a lot to teach them. Abol Naga is an old, ill architect, though the fact that he’s an architect doesn’t really impact on anything in the film. The 47-year-old actor is meant to be playing someone old and ill, which is one of the main reasons why it’s hard to suspend disbelief throughout the film. He bends over a bit, has slightly whitened hair, sometimes shuffles or pulls an old-man pose, but overall he looks pretty well and youthful. It makes the whole thing feel a bit like a school play, and it’s difficult to understand why a real old man wasn’t hired — there must be plenty of them around.

The relatives and friends who eventually love him despite his bad-tempered outbursts include an emo kid (Omar El-Ghandour), whose main role is to act like a cliché of a teenager; he’s a hoodie-wearing, porn-watching, guitar-playing stoner who can’t make eye contact. There’s also a young woman (Arwa Gouda) who’s the architect’s ex but doesn’t do much except look pretty. The same could also be said of the emo kid’s love interest (Sally Abed), whose greatest moment comes when she plays the piano while a wind machine appears to be directed at her hair.

One-time child actress Lebleba, now in her late sixties and with a lot of plastic surgery, plays the architect’s sister. Unfortunately she also doesn’t have much of a role: She moves into his villa against his will, criticizes him a bit, tries to clean up, and runs errands. At the beginning it seems like she might have sinister designs on the house but this plot element fizzles out.

Yousry, playing the architect’s nurse, stands out for her convincing acting and is probably the most likeable character as the others are either irritating (the architect) or one-dimensional (most of the others).

The villa itself, where all the action takes place apart from the last scene, is potentially a much more interesting character than any of those played by actors. It’s a large place on the Nile with a beautiful circular glass front door and some nice furniture. Early in the movie there are some silent, still shots of interiors which are intriguing, but this isn’t really properly followed up on. Although there are some nice shots, you never get a clear sense of the whole space. Indeed each shot seems isolated from the others, resulting in a film that fits together awkwardly.

This brings us to the cinematography, which is generally all over the place. Most of the time it’s basic, run-of-the-mill, focusing mainly on overly long shots of people’s faces looking at things. But this is broken up by strange contrivances, such as some self-consciously arty shots (a character washing up through a blurry window, or a tacky montage of someone blow-drying their hair and grass blowing in the wind) or, worse, by sudden jerky zoom-ins or panning movements that are quite startling and make it feel a bit like a home movie.

A lot of elements in the film don’t seem to serve any purpose. There is a bald neighbor who jogs (Bashara), but this doesn’t develop into anything. Perhaps it’s just meant to be funny? There are also some strange scenes where the architect hangs out with three characters who look like they’re from the 1970s. By the end of the movie I was fairly convinced that these were hallucinations or flashbacks, but this wasn’t very clear. Some characters make synchronized movements in these scenes, which one assumes was meant to help set them apart from the rest of the film and make them dreamlike, but it’s rather half-hearted. And we never find out who these characters are.

At two hours, the film is far too long, especially as the tone stays the same throughout and it isn’t clear what the significance of anything is. Perhaps a tough edit could have made something of it, or maybe it should have been a soap opera — it definitely had a television vibe about it in terms of its aesthetics, acting, and storyline without arc or climax.

The film in a way exemplifies the pitfalls that many of the less-good Egyptian independent movies fall into. It’s too long, too sentimental, and there are too many close-ups of people’s faces looking into the distance. Fortunately, though, this is not always the norm in the independent scene.