Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘The Empire of M’

Embratoreyet Meem (The Empire of M, 1972) starts where most movies of this era end: marriage.

A few years after graduating from college, Mohamed (Aly Gohar) and Mona (Faten Hamama) marry, and then he dies and leaves her with six children to raise while she juggles a career at the Ministry of Education.

“She’s a dictator,” yells the headmistress of a state-owned school after being informed that Mona is to inspect it.

Then Hamama, with impeccably coiffed hair and an elegant yet conservative outfit, emerges from a government-owned car in front of the school to say that she has canceled her visit but will keep a close eye on its management.

Mona is a determined and hardworking woman who thinks out of the box in a field dominated by bureaucrats. “The level of education, the policy for setting exams, and the condition of students have all been the same for 20 years,” she says forcefully in a ministry meeting.

Aside from her life at the office and her heavy load at home, a third Mona emerges when Ahmed Raafat (Ahmed Mazhar) returns to Egypt from a long trip to Geneva to rekindle a love story she had purposely erased.

Hamama, a strong career woman herself who produces films as well as acting in them and is not afraid of controversy, was well suited to the role. And this is not her only film in which the education system features prominently.

But most of the actors in the movie are teenagers or children acting for the first time. Fortunately, Naguib Mahfouz’s brilliant script means their inexperience isn’t an issue.

The characters all belong to a changing world, adopting new social norms, as reflected in the way they talk and dress — their gladiator shoes, tie-dye shirts and flared pants — and the crazy music they listen to.

Mamdooh (Ahmed Naguib), the youngest child, is a philosophical soccer fanatic. “Soccer is not a game,” he tells his mother. “Soccer is a conversation that goes back and forth.”

Madiha (Hayat Qandil) is a fine arts student, tomboy and yoga buff who tries to convince her mother that she has the right to smoke a pipe like a man. Maha (Laila Hamada) is a typical dreamy high-school girl with a naïve take on life, a squeaky voice, an extravagant sense of fashion, and a romantic involvement with her schoolmate. Mahmoud (Osama Aboul Fottouh) is a 10th grader who heads a rock band. Mostafa (Seif Aboul Naga) is a law student and a socialist, always talking as if he’s lecturing his fellow activists in college. And finally there’s Medhat (Hesham Selim), a teenage boy who’s just starting to experiment with cigarettes and sex.

The movie was the beginning of a long career for 15-year-old Selim, who later became the heartthrob of the late 1980s and 1990s. In a funny way, it also was for Khaled Aboul Naga: Seif Aboul Naga wrote his new-born brother’s name in the titles instead of his to please his mother.

Mostafa is the representation of the socialist existence: despite his disapproval of protesting, he believes “family is a socialist cell” and urges his siblings to elect a caregiver other than Mona, as he sees her as the capitalist center of power. Maha and Madiha represent more progressive aspects of the time: they are liberal and feminist. Madiha seeks to be addressed as a human being with rights not a woman hiding behind a dress and coiffed hair. Maha seeks to liberate herself from the grip of archaic social norms related to gender. They are all part of a rapidly progressing society in which Mona may be losing ground.

The Empire of M contains a great depiction of Egypt in the early 1970s. Twenty years had passed since the July 23 revolution and society was suffering severe unrest after the 1967 Naksa and Israeli occupation of Sinai, which left the people deeply scarred — especially young people, who wanted war. In January 1972, a student uprising erupted inside Cairo University, specifically the Faculty of Engineering, criticizing Anwar al-Sadat and denouncing the truce. Egypt’s student movement then was the strongest it has ever been, largely driven by the socialist and communist beliefs of previous eras. Like many others at the time, Egyptian society was also changed by a revolutionary era in which cultures started overlapping.

Having two literary giants work on one movie is a rarity. Mahfouz’s screenplay is based on a short story by Ihsan Abdel Quddus, from a collection published in 1969 under the title Bent al-Sultan (The Sultan’s Daughter). Qaddus draws his characters marvelously.

The Empire of M was director Hussein Kamal’s second collaboration with Mahfouz. In 1971, he had directed Mahfouz’s Tharthara Fawq al-Nile (Adrift on the Nile), which also depicts the dramatic changes of the 1970s and the new openness toward different sets of beliefs and principals.

In The Empire of M, Mahfouz added more sharpness to the characters, working with types he rarely broached in his own novels, such as career-oriented women, women seeking liberation, and men supporting their partners’ lifestyles and careers, happily accepting secondary roles instead of being “the man of the house” figure that dominated society and cinema.

One melody – composed by Stelvio Cipriani in 1970 for award-winning Italian movie Anonimo Veneziano (The Anonymous Venetian) – is used throughout the film. It’s a romantic, heart-warming orchestral score that effectively adds glamor.

Does The Empire of M have a whiff of state propaganda about it? That is a possibility, considering the timing: the year of the student uprising and a moment in which there was a desire to prep a socialist-leaning society for Sadat’s imminent capitalist “open-door” policy. The film was Egypt’s entry for best foreign language film at the 46th Academy Awards, but was not nominated.

Amany Ali Shawky 

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