An elderly caretaker tends to a crumbling Cairo villa in Ahmad Abdalla’s engaging third feature


Source: Cairo International Film Festival


Dir/scr. Ahmad Abdalla. Egypt. 2022. 95mins

For his third feature, Egypt’s Ahmad Abdalla uses a grand, decaying villa in the centre of Cairo to probe what ails his country, past and present. An unnamed, frail caretaker guards a past grandeur that nobody cares about, and which clearly has no future, while outside forces seep around and through the locked gates. Consistently engaging, and surprisingly deft given the broadness of the narrative strokes — it could be a play – 19B benefits from some strong central performances and is an accessible, thought-provoking film that could travel well, and broadly.

Embracing the opportunity given to him by Abdalla’s deft screenplay, Sayed Ragab turns in a memorable performance

The haves of this grand Cairo steet have long since gone: there are only have-nots in 19B. Inside the villa, our pyjama-clad caretaker (the excellent Sayed Ragab) lives a solitary existence, siphoning electricity from next door, dodging falling plasterwork and tending to his cats and dog, Antar. It’s a pretty simple existence, augmented by occasional visits from his married daughter Yara (Nahed El Sebai) and his next-door neighbour Sokkar (Magdy Atwan), who looks after a block of flats. It’s been years since he has heard from the villa’s owners or their lawyer, but his salary comes through every month. The local authorities have promised to fix the collapsing facade – but it’s clear they won’t. Why upset the status quo?

Outside on the street, though, life is considerably more chaotic. All the other grand old buildings have been torn down to make way for office blocks, and parking is a nightmare. Enter street rat Nasr (Ahmed Khaled Saleh), recently released from prison, and a gang of car-jockeys, who find spots for affluent Cairenes – including a doctor (Fadwa Abed), who adores the caretaker’s cats and dogs and is constantly sending food for them. Nasr looks through the gates and wants the opportunity he sees.

Abdalla previously made the Cairo-set Heliopolis (2009) and Microphone (2010) forming part of the Egyptian new wave of that timeHis last film was Exterior/Night in 2018, which again dealt with different classes of Egyptian society bouncing off each other. He isn’t subtle with this allegory, either, but that’s all to the film’s benefit: the characters don’t hide who they are and what they stand for, and that gives the performances room to breathe. The doctor, for instance, shows great kindness to stray cats and dogs, but avoids any involvement with the impoverished human beings who might ask something of her. It’s easier to rehouse a kitten than it is to show empathy to desperate people who might drag her into their world. “We’re on our own,” Nasr repeatedly tells the caretaker, who is clinging to the past with all his might. He doesn’t know, or want to know, what that could mean. 

19B is classically-structured in three acts, and enjoyable for that sense of security. Sympathies shift, too, as Nasr abruptly moves in, making a cuckoo out of the caretaker who tries pointless retaliations to remove him, such as flooding the creaky structure. On the one hand, what can the caretaker and his daughter do? Call the police? “People like you can’t send anyone to prison — you stay quiet or go to prison yourselves.” That’s immediately understood when a council inspector suddenly arrives to investigate a ‘complaint’ that Antar has bitten a child. 

Ahmed Khaled Saleh turns Nasr into a potent/pathetic villain as well, whining about his lack of opportunities and horrible circumstances. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, after all.

Abdalla and DoP Mostafa El Kashef rejoice in their dusty old villa and the rotting grandeur of a Cairo long-since-gone. The location is, to a certain extent, the star of the show, but it has competition in two strong performances from Saleh as the gone-to-seed tracksuited car jockey and veteran Egyptian star Ragab as the dignified, impoverished old caretaker. Embracing the opportunity given to him by Abdalla’s deft screenplay, he turns in a memorable performance which could extend his following outside Egypt at the age of 72.

A score by Youssef Sarek incorporates old Egyptian hits as played on the caretaker’s ancient radio, adding to the sense of a bygone era sealed off behind stone walls of the past.

Production company / international sales: Film Clinic,

Producers: Mohamed Hefzy, Jessica Khoury

Screenplay: Ahmad Abdalla

Cinematography: Mostafa El Kashef

Editing: Sara Abdullah

Music: Youssef Sadek

Main cast: Sayed Ragab, Ahmed Khaled Saleh, Nahed El Sebai, Fadwa Abed