A young boy walks into a cinema foyer for the first time. Angelic ushers, complete with celestial wings and halos, direct him to his seat. Images from La Dolce Vita, Gone with the Wind and Snow White burst forth on the silver screen as the boy looks on, his face lit with uncontrollable joy. Director Ossama Fawzi infuses I Love Cinema, his chronicle of a Christian family in Egypt during the 1960s, with a sense of wide-eyed wonderment. The relationship between seven year-old Naim and his strict father Adli takes center stage. While Naim lives and breathes cinema, Adli is tormented by guilt, praying endlessly and questioning his own mortal failings in front of an unforgiving God. “I am a dog, my Lord, I am rubbish,” he confesses, kneeling in front of a cross. He forbids the winningly cheeky, sprite-like Naim from going to the cinema, decrying the big screen as sinful and telling the fearful young boy that all actors go to hell. (One of the film’s funniest moments comes when the impressionable Naim sees a vision of God on the big screen, only to fall and bump his head.)
Fawzi’s I Love Cinema, a hit at this year’s Carthage Film Festival, where it took home the Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography awards, is arguably one of the most significant Egyptian films of recent years. A heart-felt paean to cinema, the film is readily reminiscent of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, with Yusef Osman’s mischievous Naim a match for that film’s young subject, Salvatore. More importantly, though, Fawzi has composed a love letter to Egypt and its cinematic history.
After all, the fortunes of Egyptian society and cinema have arguably gone hand in hand. Egypt blazed a trail for the Arab world into film production: the first cinema projection in the region took place on November 5, 1896, at the Cotton Exchange in Alexandria, and in 1925 Misr Bank began producing the first homegrown films, with Leila, an Aziza Amir production directed by Wadad Orfi, making its debut in 1927. In the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, “Hollywood on the Nile” was the world’s third largest film industry behind Hollywood and Bollywood, producing up to ninety films a year and boasting the likes of Youssef Chahine, Henri Barakat and Salah Abu Seif at its helm. The industry’s decline over the past three decades, however, increasingly has seemed inexorable. As Gaby Khoury, managing director of Misr Studios has mused, “We’re now down to about twenty-five films a year. Of those films only five, or twenty percent, actually make any money. Every time an interesting film comes out of Egypt it’s a miracle.”
Tellingly, I Love Cinema is set in 1966, the heyday of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s United Arab Republic, a time when Arabs feared not to dream and the humiliations to befall the region only months later remained the preserve of only the most pessimistic commentators. Fawzi uses the extended family to paint a broad portrait of Egyptian society, tackling a plethora of issues, most particularly the inhibition of personal freedoms, be they political, cultural or romantic. Just as Adli’s personal repression hovers over his family, so does the figure of Nasser cast an ever-present shadow over proceedings. At one point Adli, an honest if powerless teacher, attempts to tell his students about Nasser’s political aims. This is, however, far from an idealized recreation of pan-Arab nationalism. Moments later, Adli is faced with the endemic corruption of his superiors when he discovers the disappearance of funds supposedly earmarked for the poorer students. Outraged at their fraud, he vents his frustrations, even coming to blows with his headmaster. Ultimately, however, his protestations prove futile. He is accused of “adopting destructive thought,” essentially a synonym for communism at a time when Nasser was clamping down on political dissent. Off-screen, he is tortured; Fawzi subtly exposes the fissures in the system, the tainted reality behind all the vainglorious rhetoric.
Naim’s character provides some light-relief and most of the film’s laughs, from the slapstick — him urinating during a church wedding ceremony — to the more poignant — his efforts to blackmail members of his family to take him to his beloved cinema. But it’s Adli’s father figure that provides the film’s heart and soul. This is a bravura performance from Humeida. In a notable departure from his customary comedic roles, Humeida masterfully takes a character who could so easily have become a pantomime villain and instead imbues him with a riveting complexity. Throughout the film his body is wrought with frustration, a coil of tormented guilt and fear. One outstanding scene comes when his wife, played by Leila Elwi, pleads with him to be more intimate. As she attempts to seduce him, wearing lingerie, whispering sweet nothings into his ear, Adli’s face is a compelling contradiction, ashamedly yet lustfully eyeing up his voluptuous wife. In these moments, Fawzi treads a careful line between comedy and poignancy, and generally manages to avoid the farce that plagues latter-day Egyptian cinema.
The film is at its most successful when at its darkest, as in the scene when Adli reaches his breaking point. Fired from his job, suspicious that his wife is cheating on him, and ignored by his family, he sets out to get drunk. Stumbling home, he launches into a verbal assault on his omnipresent tormentor, the threat of divine punishment finally proving too much to bear. “Why don’t you love me my Lord?” he proclaims, tears swelling in his eyes. The moment is pivotal: Adli chooses his own path of love over fear, and relents, taking Naim to the cinema and making love to his wife. He is finally able to repent his sins simply by indulging in them.
Not that the film is without its flaws. Fawzi juggles too many subplots, especially in the myriad tangled love lives of the various characters, while the characters of Naim and Adli compete for center stage. The character of Nabil, Adli’s uncle, who first introduces him to cinema by recounting scenes from his favorite films, is underdeveloped. The film also overstays its welcome by a good fifteen minutes. Fawzi eschews what seems to be a perfect ending — Adli and Naim riding a bicycle into the setting sun, the crimson sky slowly fading to black as we hear the voice of Nasser’s infamous 1967 resignation speech on the radio — in favor of an unnecessary and misjudged farcical coda.
For all that, I Love Cinema remains a powerful and moving testament to the wonderment that persists when the lights go down, the curtains part and that beam from a projector is allowed to simply entertain its audiences. It’s also something of a milestone in recent Egyptian cinema. Playing hard and fast with the sacred cows of sex, politics and, most importantly religion, the film generated considerable controversy following its premiere in Cairo this summer. By focusing on Egypt’s minority Christian Copts, who make up between five to ten per cent of the population, Fawzi and screenwriter Hany Fawzi (no relation), have taken a bold step in reminding audiences of the pluralistic society Egypt — and by extension, the Arab world — once was. The result was flack from all sides. Both the screenwriter, a Copt, and the director, a Muslim convert, found themselves attacked by a coalition of Copts and clergymen who accused the film of demeaning religion.
But perhaps the (presumably) jaded members of Egypt’s censorship bureau still retain a certain sympathy for the likes of young Naim, falling in love with the silver screen for the first time: I Love Cinema was passed with no cuts — a landmark decision and hopeful harbinger for the future.
Baheb El Cima (I Love Cinema), 2004. Dir. Ossama Fawzi, Egypt, Arabic, 125 min.