Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘The Guilty’

Rumor has it that the censorship employees who approved Al-Mozneboun (The Guilty) in 1976 were prosecuted at the request of President Anwar al-Sadat. After the film’s approval — and after it had been shown for 13 weeks in cinemas and won several awards — a special committee was formed to cut many scenes.

The Guilty was written by novelist Naguib Mahfouz with Mamdouh al-Leithy, and directed by Said Marzouk. It followed Marzouk’s first two successes, Zowgati wal Kalb (My Wife and the Dog, 1971) and Oreed Halan (I Need a Solution, 1975). The latter stars Faten Hamama and relates the dark legal journey her character has to endure to divorce her abusive husband.

A year later, Marzouk drew a deeper, even more morbid portrait of mid-1970s Egyptian society — a society that had leaned toward socialism but was suddenly confronted with Sadat’s “open door” policy and a resulting collapse of social mores and increase in corruption.

Four main elements make the film a masterpiece: the cast, the dialog, the cinematography and the set design.

The unprecedented number of superstars and acting geniuses involved was surely a major reason for its box-office success. Marzouk roped in veterans such as Abdel Wareth Assar, Emad Hamdy and Omar al-Hariri, as well as one of the most recognizable villains in Egyptian cinema, Adel Adham. Young starlet Soheir Ramzy and heartthrob Hussein Fahmy add glamor as well as talent. Famous actors such as Abdel Monein Ibrahim and Samir Sabry appear fleetingly as themselves.

Renowned comedian Samir Ghanem says just one line: “Which bus goes to hell?”

The mystery begins when an actress, Sanaa Kamel (Ramzy), is killed in her home after a party, to which all her acquaintances and friends — from government employees and businessmen to fellow actors and young fans — were invited. The subsequent investigation leads to all the invitees unveiling their dirty little secrets.

Fahmy al-Qalyouby (Tawfiq al-Deken) is the hypocritical Ministry of Supplies employee who provided Kamel’s parties with stolen food and smuggled drugs. Aleef al-Bahrawy (Hamdy) and Samy al-Ge’eir (Waheed Hamed) are the struggling headmaster and the greedy Arabic teacher who sell exams for money. A sleazy Lebanese producer (played by Nabil Badr) is a gold smuggler. Dr Tahseen (Youssef Shaaban) is an immoral physician who performs illegal abortions. Mamdouh Farid is a brazen thief and a gigolo who provided sexual favors to Kamel for money, and Hafez Beih (Salah Zoulfoukar) is a double-faced embezzler. It’s a web of sleaze and crookedness that all leads back to the apparently sex-addicted actress.

You realize immediately that you’re watching something special because of the experimental, innovative cinematography.

Mostafa Emam, the director of photography, uses unusual angles, especially during the investigation scenes, when the camera often films from behind a glass door or staircase. He creates a profoundly realistic representation of society with light and shadow. Scenes inside the cell where all the suspects are being held and in the seedy hideaway where Qalyouby smokes up are in shadow, whereas others are extremely bright in contrast, such the scene at the consumer goods outlet where Qalyouby works. In this scene, we see the everyday struggle of normal people to obtain the state’s subsidized goods, which mostly end up being sold to the rich or smuggled to dealers who sell them at twice the price.

The screenplay and dialog are also brilliant. Although the scenarists were criticized for their recurrent, somewhat tedious shifts between the present (the investigations) and flashbacks (the party), they created witty, smart dialogs full of political and social projections about the typical elements of the early open-door era with its corruption and the frozen chickens that were part of US aid.

“Eat and keep quiet,” says Qalyouby.

The set design is experimental and innovative too. The actress’s bedroom door, for example, bares a huge painting of a woman’s face with crazy hair like Medusa, the Greek goddess known for her evil power of transforming humans into stones. The house is more of a maze then a home, and its bizarre, decadent décor reflects a surplus of money and a lack of taste, a social trend that many see as characterizing the 1970s.

The uncut version can now be viewed on YouTube or downloaded through a number of websites, but it’s rarely shown on Arabic TV channels. Sadat apparently made his move against those who approved the film because Egyptians living in Gulf countries complained that it negatively affected Egypt’s reputation. The censorship employees were put on trial, an event which no doubt had a lasting affect on the censors, and an edited version showed later, after official approval from Sadat. Marzouk just said he was depicting reality.

Amany Ali Shawky 

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