With 21 movies in under 15 years, Atef al-Tayeb was incredibly productive, and between 1982 and 1995 he created an evocative cinematic patchwork that mirrored the reality of those murky years.
Tayeb and his cinematic comrades, primarily Mohamed Khan and Bashir al-Deek, portrayed a society swamped in corruption and oppression, pushed back against Anwar Sadat’s “open-door policy” and examined the eradication of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab socialist leanings — but they never preached.
Al-Badron (The Basement, 1987), written by the prolific Abdel Hay Adeeb (who worked on Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station), was the ninth movie in Tayeb’s short career. Though one of his lesser known films, likely due to poor advertising and distribution, The Basement follows the same rebellious path as his whole oeuvre. It’s a thriller tackling the social inequality, oppression, corruption and poverty that resulted from the era’s mutilated politics.
After her doorman husband plunges down the elevator shaft to his death, Om al-Kheir (Sanaa Gamil) takes on his responsibilities while caring for her three children in the basement of the upscale Cairene building she now takes care of. Upstairs, the illnesses of society are represented in resident Hajj Dandarawy (Galal al-Sharqawy), a corrupt womanizing contractor, and his greedy fruit-vendor wife Fakiha (Naema al-Soghayar), who have made their way up the social ladder through deception and fraud. Through the filthy service staircase, the worlds of the rich and the poor meet.
Om al-Kheir’s son Youssef (Mamdouh Abdel Alim) is a young man who works with Sheikh Qaysoon (Hassan Hosni), a hypocritically religious resident who manipulates his followers and abuses their loyalty by raising the prices for his chanting. Her daughter Roqaya (Soheir Ramzi), an uneducated young woman, uses her looks to lure Dandarawy in the hopes of finding a better life outside the basement. Her other daughter, Eisha (a young Laila Elwi), an enthusiastic and promising political science student smothered by her social, financial and familial situation, falls for Dandarawy’s son Mostafa.
Tayeb’s odd yet brilliant choice of actors was one of the main reasons for his success as a director. Twenty eight-year-old Abdel Alim’s star was shining — he had just worked with Khan the year before in Meshwar Omar (Omar’s Journey, 1986) and was a winning choice. Abdel Alim (who passed away early this year) conveys all of Youssef’s disappointments, hardships, hopes, his shame and obsession. He signifies the less fortunate and those missing the financial and social leap many made during the “glorious” 1980s. Sanaa Gamil was another interesting choice— her years of cinematic experience give the character an unmatched poise. Her performance and Abdel Alim’s youthful freshness complete each other. Soheir Ramzi, the 1970s diva who was now 37, was a bizarre yet smart choice for the role of Rokaya, the young, seductive and ignorant young woman.
Director of photography Samir Farag translates Tayeb’s vision of the many layers of the building with meaningful tilts, tracking shots, high angles and top shots of the iron service staircase. The brightness of the building’s luxury apartments contrasts with the dimness of the shadowy basement. Farag excels in the opening scene with the body of the doorman lying lifeless in the elevator shaft as Dandarwy and Fakiha lurk above. Lasting two hours, the film does drag a little toward the end — editor Salwa Bakier fails at creating a tempo for the movie’s rather slow events — and the score is minimal.
The Basement is a dark, slow-paced melodrama about poverty and oppression in a society being wrenched from its roots. Events become increasingly dramatic and somber — it clearly expected the worst to come. Yet the performances Tayeb coaxed from the actors remain compelling until the end.