Egypt’s cinematic gems: River of Love

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877), one of the most celebrated novels of all time, starts with a famous line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

When Egyptian director Ezz Eldin Zulfikar tackled this much-adapted tragic love story in 1960, he offered his ex-wife Faten Hamama and her new husband Omar Sharif the two leading roles.

Tolstoy’s 1,200-page exploration of the circumstances that led a woman to forfeit a stable, affluent life for an affair that inevitably ends in self-destruction was inspired by real events. Zulfikar, who also wrote the script for his film, only makes slight plot changes to make the events more suitable for his cinematic approach and his Egyptian audience.

When Nawal (Hamama) rushes to rescue her brother’s marriage from falling apart, she meets a charming young officer called Khaled (Sharif) on a train. He instantly falls in love with her and settles for seduction until he can snatch her from the clutches of her husband Taher (the grand Zaki Rostom), a selfish politician who condescends to Nawal throughout the film.

Unlike the novel, the film focuses on vilifying the husband in order to invoke sympathy for the adulterous couple. His ruthless, demonizing behavior toward his son and wife justify the self-sacrificing Nawal, who married him in the first place to aid her financially unstable brother.

In the novel, Tolstoy transcends traditional, simple, black-and-white structures. None of his characters are just evil. The reader sympathizes not only with the betrayed husband, but also with the couple, as they all suffer and try to alleviate each other’s pain. Count Karenin is much more forgiving than Taher.

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River of Love

The film’s title, River of Love, is an illusion to the myth of Osiris and Isis. The jealous Set kills Osiris, the granter of the yearly Nile flood and thus life, and throws his body into the Nile. Isis retrieves and reawakens him, and becomes pregnant with their son Horus. In one of the most memorable scenes of Egyptian cinema, Sharif approaches Hamama at a masked ball, claiming that he is Osiris who has finally found his Isis, and they dance a beautiful waltz in a moonlit garden. The Osiris myth perfectly fits this version of Anna Karenina.

When Nawal and Khaled temporarily flee to Lebanon to enjoy their passionate love, they share separate bedrooms, yet kiss intensely. Zulfikar gambled that the audience would forgive this adultery and commiserate with the two lovers, and indeed the film is carried by the sizzling vibes the two superstars bring to the screen whenever they’re united in front of the camera. Their courtship seems authentic, they look torn in every scene.

This may stem from the triangle constellation between the two actors and the director. Zulfikar and Hamama married in 1947 after meeting on set when she was only 16. They remained married until 1954. When she met Sharif, then called Michel Chalhoub, on the set of Youssef Chahine’s Siraa fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley, 1954) that same year, he fell in love with her. The ensuing love story became an immediate controversy, and many of Hamama’s entourage warned her that her love for Sharif could cost her the sympathy of her audience, especially as he was Christian.

It was also largely speculated that she fell in love him while still married to Zulfikar. But Chalhoub quickly converted to Islam, Hamama chose for him the name that would subsequently gain international recognition, and she married him soon after her divorce. In the end, she was spared the feared backlash and society largely accepted the newlyweds. Hamama and Sharif are said to have prepared for their roles in River of Love at Zulfikar’s home.

Most scenes are shot in pompous villas with high-class decorative settings, intensifying Taher’s self-importance but also channeling Nawal’s graceful elegance. When the camera pivots from an upward position to reflect on her elegantly walking up and down between antique furniture and vases, she resembles a captivated princess longing for Prince Charming to rescue her. Her wardrobe and poise is that of a true lady, sharply contrasting with her simple appearance before meeting her wealthy husband.

Despite its clichéd quality, the melodramatic music that engulfs Nawal and Khaled each time they meet is characteristic of an era in which grand emotions were meant to be enchanting and cinematic experience a wonderful, unreal refuge. Fortunately, the sad plot is alleviated by the king of comedy, Fouad al-Mohandes, as Khaled’s witty friend Fouad.

Zulfikar’s films generally follow simple stories that sharply distinguish between good and evil, love and separation. Tolstoy’s novel, with its love, betrayal, self-sacrifice and death, offers terrific cinematic material. And Hamama is perfect for the Nawal version of Anna, one of the most celebrated characters of all time: charming, witty, beautiful — irresistable. In the more complex novel, Tolstoy devastatingly portrays Anna’s self-destruction through jealousy and societal rejection. Increasing bitterness piles up between herself and her lover Vronsky as they sacrifice everything for each other and have to live as outcasts.

The film’s pot is simplified, but nonetheless, River of Love remains a work of art worthy of standing in the shadows of the great original. It also stands out alongside Rodda Qalby (Give My Heart Back, 1957) and Bein al-Atlal (Between the Ruins, 1959) — the latter also a tragic love story starring Hamama — as Zulfikar’s most romantic and popular works.

Sherif Abdel Samad