Shady businessman and parliamentary candidate Farid Abu Rayya (Mohamed Farrag) stands in a shimmery grey suit in broad daylight, welcoming guests to a party on the lawn of his mansion in the real-life rural town of Belqas in the Nile Delta.
“Great suit, sir,” somebody tells him, to which he responds, “Thank you, the missus picked it for me.” The audience at the Cairo International Film Festival giggles. The missus, Ommo Roqayya, is a heavily made-up Sabreen, clad in a blue, studded gown, clearly over-dressed for daytime herself.
This is how Yousry Nasrallah establishes the aesthetic foundation of Al-Maa wal-Khodra wal-Wagh al-Hassan (Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces), released last summer and screening this week as part of the CIFF’s ‘New Egyptian Cinema’ section. The perceived visual preferences of this specific class of Egyptians — members of an urbanized rural community — in both attire and décor, excessive to the point of distraction sometimes, are heavily emphasized, not merely in the form of details complementing characters of a certain social background, but as a distinct character all on its own, a major feature of the world in which the story unfolds.
When it was announced that Nasrallah was working on a film with the notorious Ahmed El Sobky, indisputably the industry’s foremost producer — in terms of quantity of annual productions and tickets sales, if not quality — the cinematic community was part dismayed, part intrigued. To some, it was a sad state of affairs that drove one of the country’s most prominent filmmakers to work with the man so often blamed (inaccurately, in my opinion) for the recent deterioration of Egyptian cinema. Such a collaboration, they believed, would surely come at the expense of artistic value. Yet the idea of a director with significant art-house titles under his belt and one of Youssef Chahine’s most loyal disciples joining forces with the king of easy entertainment and loud, mainstream Eid hits opened up interesting possibilities.
Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces follows the Al-Tabakh family, made up of three male cooks: The father, Yehya (Alaa Zeinhom), owner of the Locanda, a fictional restaurant that has become a town landmark over the years, and his two sons, Refaat (Bassem Samra) and Galal (Ahmed Dawoud). A square and a street are named after the family, we find out as the camera spans the nearly empty town one morning. The streets are unpaved, the buildings mostly incomplete, the architecture tawdry and inconsistent.
Nasrallah never attempts to conceal or beautify, but rather delves into the recesses of this very specific visual culture, crude yet ridiculously ostentatious, ubiquitous yet often overlooked, dismissed for being tasteless, even downright ugly. Gone is the understated rural charm of the town of Akyad, the setting of Nasrallah’s debut feature, Sariqat Saifeyya (Somersaults, 1988), seen through the eyes of rich, feudalist protagonists. Here, the “locals” are the heroes, and their world — despite the film’s name — isn’t really one of beauty.
Yet for a while, during the first half of the film, it seems as though Nasrallah might be going somewhere fresh and unusual with his employment of kitsch. In a large segment of the film, the characters are preparing for, and partaking in, a wedding celebration. The women color their lips and eyelids, dance to racy folk songs in bright, shiny dresses that glitter under the sunlight, and help the men cook: stuffed vegetables and meat and cake and jelly, yellow and red. The screen brims with color: the fields, speckled with unfinished redbrick buildings, are a vivid green, the tuk-tuks are draped in neon-hued cloths, the stage-lights blink and dance and spar. Every scene becomes a delightful cacophony of sights and sounds, and even smells — you can almost catch a waft of the onions and the thyme sizzling in the cooking pans.
Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces is a very consciously sensual film, yet it is an unfettered and unflattering sensuality, never stylized. It starts with a secret marriage contract between two impassioned teenagers, and is ripe with moments of sexual tension between several characters. The story seems to center around the two earthly pleasures of food and sex — one socially revered, the other forbidden, although equally desired — and how they often intersect. Viewed from this angle, Nasrallah’s indulgence in the physical attributes of the environment appears to have an interesting function, serving certain themes at the heart of the film, distinguishing its moments of excess from the senseless noise abundant in other Sobky productions.
However, with the wedding’s end, as the lights go out and the music dies down, the film loses its focus. It leaves behind what could’ve become a rich if not particularly eventful exploration of the dynamics governing the tight-knit community it portrays in favor of some ill-placed action. Ironically, it is when the writer (Ahmed Abdallah, of 2008’s Cabaret and 2009’s The Wedding) attempts to tighten the plot that the story begins to fall apart. A forced and unnecessary “inciting incident” takes place very late in the film, leading to a series of contrived violent confrontations that culminate in a chaotic, barely believable sequence, rendering all the filmmaker’s efforts at building a real, full, vibrant world entirely useless. For instance, why would a well-educated divorcée eagerly agree to marry an illiterate cook she has only just met? How is it that an unmarried man and woman fervently kiss in public without anyone glancing their way?
In its simplified and superficial resolution, the film loses all credibility. If the writer cannot grasp his characters, failing to provide motives for their actions and create plausible reactions in turn, why would viewers take them seriously? The ending makes the director’s earlier immersion into the culture of these individuals seem like nothing more than a ploy to exhibit certain aspects of a fascinating, unfamiliar universe, reducing the characters to mere specimens.
In recent films, Nasrallah had started to step away from the confines of the bourgeois society in which he was raised and which he depicted with impressive honesty and delicacy in earlier works like Somersaults. Films like Ehky Ya Scheherazade (Scheherazade, Tell me a Story, 2009) and Baad al-Mawqe’a (After the Battle, 2012) largely take place in working-class neighborhoods and feature marginalized Egyptians as protagonists. Yet in both films there is a protagonist from the upper crusts of society, too, and therefore an unspoken understanding that the lives of these underprivileged characters are viewed from an outsider’s perspective. Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces could be considered Nasrallah’s first shot at telling the story exclusively from the inside. It seems, however, that he has not been able to relinquish his position as an outsider, and an amused one at that. And such a stance, when not acknowledged by a storyteller, often leads to destructive results — as clearly demonstrated in this film.