Supermarket (1990), written and directed by the iconic Mohamed Khan, concerns the bittersweet disintegration of an Egyptian middle class in the face of capitalism.
The 1980s were baffling years, an era of scary hair, cell phones and shoulder pads. They changed music, fashion, technology and everything else, paving the way to the world we live in today. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat’s “open door” policy meant a speedy transition. Suddenly the friendly groceries in Egyptian neighborhoods became supermarkets.
Supermarket is the tale of pianist Ramzy (Mamdouh Abdel Alim) and supermarket clerk Amira (Naglaa Fathi), and their battle against the world of Dr. Azmy (Adel Adam, known for playing the villain), with his technology and his imported Californian oranges.
We first see him during the opening credits, to the sound of Beethoven. He’s performing surgery on an old man and pretending to conduct a symphony at the same time, waving his scalpel in the air like a maestro. This is cut with shots of Ramzi playing the piano. As the music fades Dr. Azmy abruptly retires to the bar, leaving his assistants to finish the job. It’s a dramatic, comic start.
The first scene, with Ramzy shaving, is similar to the opening of Khan’s 1984 gem Missing Person (1984). The protagonists of both films are going one way at the beginning of the movie and find themselves in a totally unexpected place at the end. Mundanity tends to signal alarming change in Khan’s movies.
After his wife’s sister kicks him out of the house, Ramzy returns to his mother’s place in Cairo’s Daher district, a crowded neighborhood on the Heliopolis side of Ramses, known for its middle-class Christian population. There he reconnects with neighbor Amira and her daughter Nahed. It’s a world of real joy and good taste, where class and sophistication is not tied to money and suburban mansions.
Amira and Nahed’s modest dreams are suddenly reshuffled by the return from Kuwait of Amira’s ex-husband Khaled (Nabil al-Halafawy).
“Mom, why didn’t you tell me father has a Mercedes?” asks the little girl, mesmerized by her father’s Gulfie millions.
In parallel, Ramzi lives his own ordeal, laid off from the bar where he plays piano, a bar with a plastic Statue of Liberty at the door. This is when we properly meet Dr. Azmy, who hires the pianist for lessons but ends up coaching him to become a millionaire.
Physician and businessman Dr. Azmy is a good-looking older man who’s proud of his wealth and American accent and calls his one-night-stand partners “asafeer” (birds) because they come and go.
“The graduate of US colleges,” says an old patient, days before dying under Dr. Azmy’s scalpel. “They say he can remove a prostate with no surgery, using laser beams.”
“If you want to be a millionaire you have to let go of morals,” says Azmy.
“Greetings from a failure to all the successful people,” wrote the filmmaker at the beginning of the movie. This sentence points to the merging of new money and real people, which is also reflected in the soundtrack: Ramzi always has Beethoven playing in his car, while folky jingle Talili ya Batta (Come to me Duck) accompanies most of Azmy’s appearances.
One party has to fail. Reality, humanity and heritage lose the game to money. Around the point when Nahed says, “Uncle Azmy looks very rich,” there is a general surrender to an imported version of the “American dream.” The dark comedy creeps up on you in the last five minutes of the film. It’s sudden and shocking.
Supermarket bears witness to a social class that has become extinct in the last two decades, like those black-and-white photographs of the last Tasmanian tiger in captivity. Half of it ascended the social ladder and became rich, and the others sank below the poverty line.
As usual with Khan, the visual details in Supermarket are vivid. The old house in Daher and the fancy Baron Hotel in Heliopolis, like Daoud Abdel Sayed’s outdoor locations in Ard al-Ahlam (Land of Dreams, 1993), are meant to highlight the authenticity and depth of the old versus the shallowness and ugliness of the new.
This comparison is emphasized even more by the simple yet forceful acting of the two stars. Abdel Alim (often a TV actor) excels in portraying the unfulfilled artist in a joyful and exaggerated manner that comes across as cartoonishly funny but believable. The performance of Fathi, who’s also the movie’s producer, is equally cheering. Her character is loving and vindictive, jolly and fearful, tender and cruel, strong and weak all at the same time. And her unflattering clothing and big glasses almost make you forget that she was one of Egyptian cinema’s big beauties throughout the 1970s.
It’s one of Khan’s best-known films, but it’s not super easy to get hold of or find online.