Egypt’s cinematic gems: Struggle in the Valley

The people of a small Upper Egyptian village await a messenger from the sugar company with angst and enthusiasm. It’s their final chance to win the tender and sell their sugar cane crop to the company, triumphing over the monopolizing pasha.

Made two years after the 1952 revolution, Youssef Chahine‘s Siraa fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley, or The Blazing Sun) has a scenario quite typical to post-1952 productions: foreign-influenced feudalism versus socialism, and masters against slaves, humble workers or struggling farmers. The 1957 super-Nasserist hit drama Rod Kalbi (Return My Heart) by Ezzel Dine Zulficar is perhaps the most glaring example of this genre and has some parallels with Struggle in the Valley. But Struggle in the Vallery is a lot weirder.

The opening, with dramatic compositions and emotive music by longtime Chahine collaborator Fouad al-Zahiry, echoes a rustic brand of orientalism, with long shots of water wheels, dark-skinned villagers in traditional white robes, camels and a voiceover by a young Omar Sharif with an anomalously posh, rather foreign accent.

Ahmed (Sharif) is back home after finishing his bachelor’s degree in agriculture and with his informed approach, the village’s sugar cane crop is premium quality.

But on the east side of the village lurks evil in a big neoclassical mansion: From the portico, the pasha’s nephew (Farid Shawky) shoots a stray cat in cold blood and laughs frantically in a cartoonish manner. The family’s guard, walking across the grounds, picks up the dead cat and unexpectedly throws it into the air over his shoulder. Then the both of them, and the pasha (Zaki Rostom), scheme to drown the village’s crop.

As they go about ruining everything and frame Ahmed’s kind, naïve father (Abdel Wareth Asar), Ahmed falls for the pasha’s teenage daughter Amal aka Batates (Faten Hamama).

The choice of the sugar cane as a crop is symbolic: Sugar-cane fields represent slavery and promise freedom. Both Brits and Turks were known for enslaving locals in sugar cane fields as the lucrative crop demands attentive care and manpower. Demographically, the movie centers on the type of agriculturally-oriented Upper Egyptian village that has long since become largely dependent on tourism.

Aly al-Zorkany’s script may well draw an accurate image of the dynamics between locals and parasitic pashas following the revolution, when farmers acquired land (five acres each) and the power balance with their former employers changed. But certain elements are undeveloped, such as the abrupt love story between two characters who have not seen each other in years and share nothing but a few childhood memories.

A fresh, raw face for the leading man is a tradition Chahine followed religiously throughout his 50 years filmmaking. In Omar Sharif or Michel Demitri Shalhoub (Sharif’s birth name), he saw something that was missing from most heartthrobs of the era and gave him his first ever cinematic role. Aside from his strange accent and impaired articulation, Sharif looks great and manages to portray anguish, despair and wrath with his gaze and loud silences.

Casting Hamama as a teenage high-school graduate is also strange: She doesn’t look like one as she was 23 at the time. But she knows how to act like one. Amal is loud, squeaky, naïve and impulsive, someone you might get annoyed with pretty fast, but at the same time extremely watchable. (In real life, the two got married a couple of years later, and both worked for Chahine again in 1956 to make romantic drama Siraa fil Mina (Struggle on the Pier).)

As for Shawky, throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, he cleverly and smoothly alternated between villains and underdogs, preventing himself from being typecast. (He pops up again in Chahine’s early masterpiece Cairo Station in 1958, with quite a different character.) Rostom, however, deservingly wins the title “villain of all villains.”

Cinematographer Ahmed Khorshid’s frames are clear and faultless. Some bear remarkable similarities to the black-and-white stills of photographer Van Leo, especially the shots of Sharif. Mostly lit from below, Khorsid’s angles accentuate his beauty, piercing eyes and protruding cheekbones. Chahine’s glorification of men’s beauty and love is there, though much more subtle than his later work in Eskenderia Leih (Alexandria… Why, 1979), and Haddouta Masreya (An Egyptian Story, 1982). Chahine loved his leading men. He unearthed raw talent and polished it to stardom.

Zahiry’s score, through great, confirms the film’s slightly orientalist approach. The flute, drum, oud and daunting screeches of sopranos merge to form a gamut of Upper Egyptian sounds in symphonic form.

Things get pretty intense and more complicated toward the end of the film, with flooding, a race against time, multiple plot twists, a memorable kiss between Hamama and Sharif, and a tense stand-off among ruins in the desert. It might have an unpromisingly classic set-up, quite a bit of melodrama, and some unconvincing aspects, but it’s definitely worth a watch.

Struggle in the Valley

Amany Ali Shawky 

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