Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘The Deluge’

When I hear the term “cinematic gem” I think of the common yet clichéd expression “buried treasure.” It’s the perfect description for this film, screened commercially for the first time in 1985.

It’s an almost unknown film. I never come across it being shown on the satellite channels and rarely do I find anyone who has seen it. I don’t have a logical interpretation as to why it has become a forgotten film. By commercial standards it’s attractive, with a plot bearing the sad, emotive touch common to its time. The cast includes some of the stars of the moment: Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, Farouk al-Fishawy (this film is a chance to watch Fishawy’s greatest performance, and it wipes out his other multiple failures), Somaya al-Alfy, Hala Sedky, Mahmoud al-Gendy and Sanaa Younes, as well as Sherif Mounir and Abla Kamel in their first cinematic appearances.

Perhaps the film is lost from viewers’ radars due to the conditions of its production and distribution, although I am inclined towards a different explanation: It was hit by some sort of legendary curse because it’s the only film in our cinematic history that dared to show children killing their mother. And the film does not stop at just showing the crime — it goes as far as convincing viewers to give excuses for the murderers.

She isn’t an evil or cruel mother. She isn’t aggressive with her children. She doesn’t move their father to commit suicide so she can have a life of her own with a lover. She is the total opposite of all that. She is a tender, patient and giving mother. It is enough that her role was assigned to Amina Rizk, known as the quintessential mother in Egyptian cinema. But you find yourself understanding the motives of the children when they decide to kill her. So it’s a film worth its curse. Is it not?

Screenwriter Bashir al-Deek was going through his first directing experience. This man’s artistic screenplay gems have been associated with two of the most important directors of his era: Atef al-Tayeb and Mohamed Khan. It is sufficient to remember the former’s “The Bus Driver” (1982), “Against the Government” (1992), and “A Hot Night” (1996), and the latter’s “A Bird on the Road” (1981) and “A Dinner Date” (1981).

But with “The Deluge,” he decided to take on the directing, perhaps because events in the film unfold in his native town, Kafr al-Bateekh in Damietta. Perhaps he saw that he would be the best person to relay this world to the screen.

As a director, Deek is closer to Tayeb’s style than to Khan’s. The primary giveaway is that it’s a humanist drama that escalates in a classical way and depends on powerful performances. You won’t find a complex frame or an unpredictable filming angle. You won’t find cuts that call on you to think about what meaning they could have. You won’t find anything apart from what you need to follow the plot and get emotional with its details and characters, all presented in a simple, spontaneous way.

But Deek’s artistry is still there, perhaps in his main field, screenwriting. He had to give truthful answers to some very difficult and cruel questions: How can the children kill their beloved mother? How can they do this after a lot of thinking, which renders the killing a logical choice and not just a product of a moment of madness and impulse? How do they calmly agree on the crime? And most importantly, how can the film distribute your empathy as a viewer equally between the victim and the perpetrators of an exceptional crime?

The first step toward the right answers lies in existentially tying you as viewer to the children and fueling your sense of compassion toward their crisis and hopes. The children in “The Deluge” are us. This is how Deek drew them, filling them with a bit of the spirit of all Egyptians: stifled ambitions and feelings, despair stuck to the soul, dreams constantly postponed and the search for a miracle that will lift you from the past. You will probably see this same sincerity in the way Egyptian characters are developed in a lot of films, but the new thing here is that Deek makes the miracle possible for his characters.

The price of the limited agricultural land that the children have inherited from their father jumps from a few thousand pounds to a million when it falls in the urban ring adjacent to the new road, about to be paved, to the Damietta port. One million pounds is enough to solve problems and achieve dreams. A legitimately earned one million pounds would spare each one of the children from having to abandon his or her moral values. But Deek was brutal, and made his miracle conditional: he hit his characters to the core by linking their chance of receiving the money to a false testimony their mother will have to give in court. The testimony would not affect anyone else’s right — it’s more of a necessary measure to prove their right to the land.

At this critical juncture, you find yourself surprised at your hesitation between the different stances you could take. The film has this dual shock: the shock of the miracle and the shock of its association with a false testimony by the mother. This shock unveils a terrifying side of the Egyptian personality, a delicate frail side, namely that of morality.

At some point, and this point may differ from one viewer to the other, you will find yourself wanting to see the mother acquiesce to her children’s request. The moral compass has become deeply confused in our minds. So when the believing mother categorically refuses to end her life with a sin, and when all legal means and attempts to negotiate with the other parties of the conflict reach an impasse, and when the mother, old and ill, hears herself saying “May God take me away for you to be comforted,” you will find yourself psychologically ready to accept the crime, despite its cruelty. When the children gather on the eve of the final court hearing, in one of the most intense moments of our cinematic history, and as they are burdened with the weight of reality, then you will be convinced that the devilish solution of matricide is indeed the only solution.

Any crime, regardless of how awful it is in normal conditions, can be digested under a certain level of pressure. This happens regardless of the public’s level of education, culture, and apparent moral consistency. This is the truth that Deek cruelly exposes your soul to. By watching this film, you can understand how people find excuses for crimes of torture, indecent assaults, broken promises, repeated lies, stripping people naked and dragging them, random killings, and more. Every crime can have a convincing excuse that exists somewhere in the dark corner of our souls. It comes out spontaneously, in cases of necessity.

Deek put on the director’s hat another time for “A Road for Travel” (1987), which is even more unknown than “The Deluge,” though it is said to be artistically better. Then he entered into a series of seven films with Egypt’s most famous mainstream actress, Nadia al-Gendy, before getting caught up in the mill of television production, where almost all works are hardly remembered. I am trying to imply that the man may indeed have fallen under a legendary curse: the curse of being compelled to strip us naked so that we can see our own soul in its ugliest image.


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