Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘Baheb al-Cima’

When Osama Fawzy’s Baheb al-Cima (I Love Cinema) hit Egypt’s movie theaters in 2004, it created massive controversy and was accused of blasphemy, especially among Christian scholars and conservative Coptic clerics.

The movie explores the lives of a middle-class Cairene Christian family toward the end of the 1960s through the eyes of its youngest member, Naeem Adly, a seven-year-old who loves movies and enjoys going to the cinema more than anything. Youssef Osman, the child actor who played Naeem, is perfect as a creative soul and sensitive being hiding behind a façade of irony and the diabolic gift of urinating on people.

Naeem’s passion for cinema is curbed by his conformist father who is extremely “religious” and God-fearing. Adly (Mahmoud Hemida) is an uptight middle-aged man feared and hated by his son; he thinks movies are sinful and actors are Satan’s ambassadors and fuel to hell, which is a dark place full of flames and worms, as he informs his “sinful” son.

Neaamat, Naeem’s mother, is sad and daydreamy, as the narrator (Naeem at the age of 40, who is believed to be the voice of the director), describes her in the first few minutes of the two-hour saga. Played by Leila Elwy, she is a voluptuous woman, an artist at heart, who chose a career as a headmistress. She hides her sorrow and oppression behind a sharp fake front of conservatism and contentment. She feels neglected and tormented by her cruel reality — and by her husband’s misunderstanding of God and religion.

Both Hemida and Elwy turned in robust performances. Hemida’s came as a surprise for many. He has long been pigeon-holed into the handsome lover role, mostly because of his good looks, like in Khairy Besharra’s Harb al-Farawla (The War of Stawberries, 1993) and Inas al-Degheidi’s Dantella (1997). (Ganet al-Shayateen (The Devil’s Heaven, 1999) was the exception: In it, he played the role of a corpse.) For Adly, Hemida hid his good looks behind a horrid mustache, huge, ugly glasses and a balding head, making way for his talent to prevail.

Despite her imposed classification as the beautiful heroine and her struggle during the perplexing 1980s between good and not-so-good roles, and another struggle against obesity, Elwy shone in several movies, particularly Mohamed Khan’s Missing Person (1984).

In “Baheb al-Cima,” Elwy recalled her concealed talent and her usual audacity to perform a bold scene. In 1989, she starred in a controversial movie, Saeed Marzouk’s The Rapists, as a young woman who is kidnapped and raped by drug addicts. The film created quite a stir when it was screened. At one point in Baheb al-Cima, Neaamat tries to seduce her very conservative husband and they end up having sex. Many consider the scene offensive. Firstly because it was shot with a wide angle from behind, while in most intimate scenes in Egyptian cinema the camera either focuses on something completely different in the room, like a window or a vase being shattered, or simply gives a close-up of the actors that barely shows the head and shoulders. Secondly, because Naemaat gives a monologue that touches on sensitive issues of intimacy — which is also unusual.

The appearance of a communist art inspector and a painter called Medhat Youssef (Zaki Fateen Abdel Wahab) in Neaamat’s life turns it upside down and almost pushes her to commit adultery. (This was Abdel Wahab’s second role after his stunning debut in Yousry Nasrallah’s Mercedes (1993). His quirky talent and unusual tone and style manifests itself in certain roles, but here the role is too small for him to do much with it.)

Religion, or their misunderstanding of it, is the reason behind the anguish of most of the protagonists in Baheb al-Cima. They are torn between an undying love for life and a haunting fear of hell. Young Naeem is an exception. He is driven by a love of art, fun and beauty, symbolized by his mother’s real self and her daring paintings of curvy naked women.

In this daring scenario, Hani Fawzy — who also wrote the script for Daoud Abdel Sayed’s Ard al-Ahlam (1993), and last year directed Family Secrets — draws an untraditional portrait of a typical middle-class Christian woman living in Shubra, a district with the biggest Christian population in Cairo. It’s about the tightknit relations between neighbors, the mandatory church prayers, the scandalous fights, the funerals, and above all the power of a Christian woman within her family. This is manifested by Neaamat’s mother (Aida Abdel Aziz), a strong old woman with an Upper-Egyptian accent and endless hatred for her own mother-in-law, whom she eventually kicks out of the house.

The strength of the grandmother is contrasted with the passivity of her daughter, who hates her life but is too weak to change it. She loathes her husband, yet will run to his rescue at any moment of weakness. This is in fact a deliberate portrayal of the typical woman/mother figure in Egyptian cinema, highlighted particularly in a scene in which Neaamat bathes her husband after he has spent a day incarcerated and peed his pants. It echoes a scene in Nasrallah’s Al-Madina (The City, 1999) in which Abla Kamel bathes her eldest son after he comes back from France broken and lost. It’s a weird scene about the Egyptian middle-class woman’s love and support for a man.

The movie also touches on religious misconception and draws a real image of conservatism in Christianity, a topic rarely tackled in Egyptian cinema. Al-Raheba (The Nun, 1965) and Shafiqa al-Qebteya (Shafiqa the Copt, 1962), both by Hassan al-Emam, touched on the issue in a far more naïve way by portraying a sinning woman who returns to God by the end of the movie and decides to be a “good” Christian.

Director of photography Tarek al-Telmesany (also DOP for Missing Person), excels in portraying the pale lives of the protagonists through a faint palette of lights and colors and a number of close-ups and medium shots that reflect a certain gloominess off their faces. In the first scene, Telmesany takes a close-up of Adly’s face from a low angle (the viewpoint of Naeem) in darkness, with simply a candle lighting the shot. Later, darkness prevails again in a final confrontation between Adly and God, shot through close and medium shots taken from a higher angle (the viewpoint of God).

Baheb al-Cima was a success in the box office and among critics, which is a rare combination. Box office successes tend to be commercial work that is frowned upon by critics. Many believe its commercial success was due to the movie tackling the issue of sexuality or the lack thereof, which made it appealing to the Egyptian audience.

It was Egypt’s submission to the 77th Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film, but was not nominated.

Amany Ali Shawky