The Yacoubian Building

ICA Films-Strand Releasing
Marwan Hamed/Egypt 2006

Egypt’s most expensive film to date, with a plethora of stars and dazzling locations, The Yacoubian Building resembles an overblown Hollywood-style melodrama that would not have shamed Douglas Sirk. Likened by one of the film’s producers to “an Egyptian Ocean’s Eleven,” The Yacoubian Building broke box-office records on its home release. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Alaa Al Aswamy, the film’s central location – an actual apartment block in downtown Cairo – acts as a metaphor for Egyptian society.

For most of its three-hour length, watching this film is like breathing in the steam of a warm, scented bath: flawed but lovable characters face dilemmas largely of their own making in exotic surroundings; the dialogue is amusing and the music, evocative. The film engages and entertains with a variety of settings, from shadowy backstreet bars to high-class seaside restaurants to opulent rooms with free-flow wine and women; from rooftop washing lines and old sofas to shadowy encounters in alleyways and sudden bloody shootings. Despite the melodramatic nature of events, the actors deliver subtly graded performances that make us empathize with characters trapped by past dependences and obligations.

In 1990, the Yacoubian Building’s opulent apartments were once the sole preserve of the upper classes. Now, roof-top storage rooms are homes for an underclass barely noticed by the wealthier residents. They are, however, caught up in the same mesh of exploitation, corruption and violence. Old habits of deference and class distinction die hard; a mix of low cunning judiciously spiced with hypocrisy and bribery is necessary for survival. As one character cynically remarks, “Who hasn’t got a bad reputation in Egypt?”

Zaki El Dessouki (Adel Imam), wealthy retiree/womanizer, shares an inherited apartment with his sister. To her disgust, he regularly beds prostitutes in an office he maintains in the building. Despite his penchant for bar girls, he still loves his childhood sweetheart, Christine (Yousra), a mature siren who gives Edith Piaf classics a mournful interpretation in her high-class nightclub. His neighbor Hatem (Kahled El Sawy), editor of a French newspaper, also pays for sex, but his choice is young street patrolmen up from the country to do their military service. Surprisingly, the film contains a sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality, a previously taboo subject in Arab films.

Both are kindly men, dismayed when their targets are less than grateful. “Why didn’t I spot you were a pimp,” Zaki hisses at a barman. He is evidently more concerned about his lack of judgment than his lack of morals when one of his “conquests” steals his wallet. More sinister is Haj Azzam (Nour El Sherif), a smug self-made millionaire with political ambitions and an over-active sexual appetite. When his Imam advises him to take a second wife to preserve his religious integrity, he chooses a beautiful widow with a son and weds her without telling his current wife. Egyptian women, as we know from observing Zaki’s sister, can cut up really rough when annoyed. She’s inclined to throw vases, and finally him, out of the apartment when he continues to besmirch the family name with his antics, ignoring her timely advice to “Fear God in your last days.”

Lowlier residents include beautiful Bothayna (Hind Sabry), continually fighting off predatory employers whilst working to support her widowed mother and siblings. It doesn’t help when her streetwise friend and even her mother can’t understand why she objects, so long as she keeps her virginity. Meanwhile boyfriend Abd (Bassem Samra) hopes to join the police force but is embittered when his class – his father is a janitor – arouses the contempt of interviewers. Recruited into a fundamentalist group dedicated to instituting reforms, then brutalized whilst under arrest, his resentment turns to a thirst for revenge. The torture scenes in the police cells and its consequences mark a turn in the film’s atmosphere from sleaze to a violence which spreads as the other characters face retribution and regret. Each learns valuable lessons as events escalate. Sadly, it is too late for most of the hapless protagonists to escape the punishments of the corrupt society which holds them in its grasp.

© 2007 Sheila Cornelius. All rights reserved.

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