Dir. Yousry Nasrallah. Egypt/ France/ Germany, 2007. 111 mins.
As undoubtedly the best-known protege of t legendary Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, Yousry Nasrallah has been working as a film critic or film-maker for nearly 30 years. Since 1988, hhee has directed a series of distinctive films that frequently show up in festivals, but that have had, internationally at least, less commercial luck. This state of affairs is not going to be much altered by his latest offering, The Aquarium (Genenet Al Asmak).
An often gorgeously poetic but demanding exercise in self-reflexivity, this is unlikely to enjoy a wide public following - especially at its nearly two-hour running time.
Festival programmers looking for intellectually-challenging fare that would also enhance an Arab-language presence should take a look, but commercial prospects, even at the ancillary level, are slim.
The film's principal characters are Laila (Sabry), an unhappy beauty who hosts a late-night call-in radio show during which listeners talk about their most closely-guarded fantasies, and Youssef (Waked), a restless anaestheseologist who works in a respectable hospital during the day and augments his salary in a seedy abortion mill at night. Youssef's father (Ratib), a respected former judge, is dying of cancer.
By the end of the film, Laila and Youssef's paths will finally cross in the visually-suggestive aquarium gardens in Cairo.
Along the way, viewers are also introduced to various subsidiary figures who frequently step out of character and, looking directly into the camera, offer their opinions of the true motivations behind the choices and actions of Laila or Youssef or the characters they themselves are playing.
The beauty of this method is that it allows the director to examine the inner lives of his characters, which gives an added, almost novelistic level of resonance and psychological depth to his storytelling that is usually unavailable to a film-maker. (It also demands highly-developed acting skills which are on abundant display in the film.)
The danger of the gambit, on the other hand, is that this Brechtian alienation-effect might succeed in doing just that, alienating the audience. In this same vein, little poetic stories that are told by characters within the main narrative are sometimes rendered in purposely-artificial black-and-white vignettes.
The other interesting thing is that Nasrallah succeeds in marrying an often meticulous documentation of Cairene reality to an otherwise highly stylised theatrical approach.
Though the film is clearly focused on Cairo's upper-class, he does not shy away from politically-charged issues such as the rise of Islamist fundamentalism and the corruption of the ruling regime. This double-edged critique is offered somewhat obliquely, but its presence, especially for the local audience, will be unmistakable.
Despite the intellectual joyride that some viewers will experience, however, it's quite clear that a few wordless scenes seem to go on forever and could easily be trimmed without compromising the film's innovative narrative technique.
And on a purely technical level, Nasrallah has chosen to shoot nearly the entire film in such extremely low-light conditions that the DVD version will be virtually invisible.
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Misr International Films
Nasser Abdel Rahman