If you think this is just a simple story of a sexy older woman seducing a college boy and finding excuses to show off her belly-dancing skills in the process, think again.
Shabab Imraa (A Woman’s Youth, aka The Leech, 1956) is about sex, obsession, sadomasochism, temptation and a provincial character’s near-impossible quest for knowledge in the urban devil’s den. But more than that, it’s a tale of addiction, of the horrors and sweet pleasures of an addict’s life.
Directed by Salah Abu Seif and written by Amin Youssef Ghorab, A Woman’s Youth starts in a quiet rural town, showing the pious simplicity of the prior life of the main character, Imam (Shoukry Sarhan.) The director’s preference for visual language to dialogue is clear from the start, through just following hand gestures we understand that his mother is selling cattle to fund his education.
Witnessing the preparations and conversations between Imam and his mother and friends, we see how much attention he gets from those close to him and equally the amount of pressure he’s under, which is perhaps what later leads him to get sucked into a tight circle of addiction. Put under the spotlight like that, many people naturally do anything they can to ease the constant tension.
Imam makes the trip to the city, and we’re soon introduced to Shafaat (Tahiya Karioka,) from whom he rents a room – hoping for a peaceful place where he can study hard. Shafaat doesn’t like that and initially wants him out, but her mind spins in a different direction when she notices his physical strength after someone in the house has an accident and Imam heroically saves his life.
She doesn’t give the spectator a chance to determine how genuine her bad-ass attitude is. Like Imam, we’re immediately shocked by her sharpness, constant yelling and witty remarks, so her dominance is immediately established. Like a powerful drug, she proves her uniqueness and charm on first encounter, so the user has no delusions about the power being faced.
The audience’s identification with the events from Imam’s point of view is established mainly through the beautifully staged compositions, while very dramatic music (by Fuad al-Dahiri and Ramses Naguib) gives each scene the edge it needs to touch the audience and convey the situation’s seriousness.
The perverse darkness of the relationship between Imam and his drug of choice, Shafaat, can only be felt through contrast, so we’re introduced to Salwa (Shadia.) A love story that has continued in their hearts since childhood, when they were playmates, continues when Imam and Salwa meet again in Cairo.
A beautiful musical introduction establishes Salwa’s romantic, submissive character: the lyrics of a song she sings to the lover she has not yet met. We know we’re about to witness an epic battle between childish innocent love and fiery sadomasochist love.
The devil strikes at night. We see images of Shafaat’s restlessness, provoked by the sounds of prayer and of Imam studying and being a good college boy. She can’t stand it and goes to him, trying to force her dominance over him just as she does with everyone she deals with. When he stands firm, the spark is lit and she understands that he’s not like all the others. Just like Freud said, a sadist is originally a masochist: Shafaat enjoys her sadism, but momentary resistance rekindles the fire of her perversion. She has found her next target, one who will make her feel young again.
Imam’s naiveté is emphasized in his reactions to the childish pranks Salwa’s little brother keeps pulling on him – fake pens and other tricky items that he’s never come across before. He’s totally new to this setting and unsuspecting of evil of any kind.
Shafaat’s obsessive character is cleverly established. The huge set of beauty products on her dresser, the neatness of her room and choice of furniture that doesn’t really go with the lower-class neighborhood she lives in all imply her obsession with her image. Her spying on Imam through a hole in the wall reveals an obsession with him and his youth.
Nightly forbidden encounters, beautifully lit and composed, convey a necessary sense of guilt. One frame has Shafaat in the foreground in a sexy nightgown and Imam in the background, sneaking through the door to try to reason with her. Careful staging conveys the huge temptations Imam faces: her beauty is irresistible and she gets to him by victimizing herself, a devil in sheep’s clothing.
The scene where she finally visits his sleeping quarters and convinces him of the pureness of their love has her sneaking up from behind to spit venom in his ears with promises of virtue, eliminating his guilt. It’s identical to the conversation that goes through the head of a drug addict late at night, trying to convince himself of the normality of his situation, that all people do the same thing, and silencing the irritating voice of his conscience so he can commit to it full time.
The character of Hasabo is as necessary as any of the main characters. Beautiful played by Abd al-Wareth Assa, Hasabo is a wise aging junkie and drunkard, a prisoner of his addiction and of Shafaat, with no real intention to break out. He’s a masochist who has made a conscious choice to die in the arms of his drug.
Shaafat’s dominance over Imam is also not only just her doing. We become aware of how big an appetite Imam has for life, wealth and food through an iconic scene of him consuming huge quantities of chicken. Remarks about his appetite and the happiness on his face when Shafaat gives him a gold watch show that he’s not just being pulled into the arms of an unmerciful drug — he also has an enormous appetite for it.
When Imam goes off to a belly-dancing show, Shafaat pulls him by the ear back to the house for one of the best belly-dance scenes in Egyptian cinema. The scene has been repeated hundreds of times, but this version is unique because it doesn’t simply take place in the bedroom: it actually starts in the fair. A wide variety of camera angles immerses us in the situation, and when they eventually make it to the bedroom the action is cleverly framed by placing the camera behind various objects. The camera’s movements to the music’s rhythm gives the scene the lightness it needs. Last but not least, there’s Tahiya Karioka’s epic performance.
As a symbol of Shafaat’s evil a mule is constantly being put to work, beaten to go around in circles. We gradually notice, through editing and clever hints given by Hasabo and Shafaat, that this brilliantly symbolizes Imam’s situation.
Imam doesn’t go to school or care about it anymore. His previously set goals are definitely out of the picture. He no longer writes to his mother. His health deteriorates, leaving him in a physically weak state. His drug serves as his blindfold.
In Salwa’s scenes, entrancing music, cinematography and fitting lyrics give a sense of the beauty of life in the light of day, outside Imam’s dark spiral of addiction.
Images of Imam sick in bed, going through an ugly withdrawal stage, are cleverly cut with shots of the mule. But when Imam manages to quit his habit, he’s dragged again by Shafaat to the house to reassert her dominance. Abu Seif conveys a sense of the pressure the addict is put under by his loveable drug through an aerial view of this relapse scene.
When you try to quit a drug, it goes on the offensive with difficult mental images of how boring it’s going to be without it. Shafaat does the same. Relentlessly the drug follows the user around like a shadow, with haunting images of the happiness they had in each other’s arms. It tries to establish the idea that the choice is between a normal boring life in a meaningless world, or enjoying the high and committing to addiction, like Hasabo.
A melodrama with comic interludes, A Woman’s Youth culminates with some fantastically dramatic twists. These confirm that the film deliberately addresses the issue of outsiders coming to Cairo to seek knowledge, and the radical shift that happens to their lives as they enter a world of temptation and are introduced to their monstrous desires. The film feels like a warning, an awareness campaign about the hell one could easily drift into.
Maybe it’s by accident or maybe it’s intended that this film also cleverly and indirectly portrays the life of an addict, serving as a beautifully artistic cautionary tale.