Film Analysis

Film Review: Coming Forth by Day (2012)

 Filmed over a five-year period, that included postpones due to production difficulties, and the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Coming Forth by day was released in 2012 to limited release, and it was finally released in 2014 to mainstream audiences. The film, which included mainly non-professional actors, is Egyptian director Hala Lotfy’s first feature-length debut. The 84-minute Drama follows a day in the gloomy, monotonous life of a middle class Egyptian family, and their journey to overcome their disappointments and eventually connect with each other. The title of the film was inspired by the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian text detailing the passage of the deceased into the afterlife, and ultimately their coming forth by day.

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  Set mainly in an old shabby flat in Cairo, the film follows a day in the life of its main character Soad, a young woman in her late-twenties living with her two elderly parents. With the camera placed expertly in the corner of the house, it appears almost as if the viewer is spying onto the lives and daily chores of this middle-class family, the biggest chore of all being taking care of the elderly paralyzed father, and the tension his condition poses on both the mother and the daughter. The gorgeous set design gives the house a warm familiar feel, and the yellowish color palette of the film adds an almost tangible air of depression that surrounds all the characters. Despite the excellent use of light inside the house, and the mesmerizing frame composition, the film seems lost when it comes to shooting external scenes; with a certain sequence shot form a moving car guaranteed to make its viewer dizzy.

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 With her exceptional cinematic vision, Hala Lotfy managed to capture the boredom of her characters, and their dull daily routine with as little dialogue as possible. The complexity of the relationship between the mother and the daughter is nothing short of spellbinding, as they both feel guilty about the father yet resort to what most humans do when feeling guilty; they blame each other. The director skillfully sheds a light on the pressure imposed on families by caring for a disabled member, a subject rather common among most Egyptian households yet rarely spoken of. However, her ambitious efforts to explore the pressure imposed on older single women or ‘spinsters’  in a funny scene of a bizarre young woman who Soaad encounters as soon as she leaves the house, comes off as rather irrelevant to the moody atmosphere of the film.

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 The film was appraised in a number of local and international film festivals including Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Thessaloniki Film Festival, it even got included in an updated list of the 100 Best Arab films by Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say Coming Forth by day is not a film for everybody, and if you’re irritated by slow-paced movies, then steer clear of this one. However, if you’re a lover of hypnotizing static shots, gritty realism, and complex characters; this is a unique and charming film that will definitely be appreciated as one of the best Egyptian films made in the last decade.

Rating : 7/10

Film Analysis

5 Reasons to Revisit Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2014)

-Nymphomaniac

Almost three years now, the Danish auteur’s film made quite the stir even before it was released. That’s the funny thing with sex; it initiates a reaction when the word is simply spoken out loud. The film, the third and final installment of Von Trier’s depression trilogy, revolves around Joe, a self-confessed Nymphomaniac who tells her story from age 5 till 50 to the seemingly asexual yet extremely intrigued Seligman.

Opening with a Neue Deutsche Härte track from the German band Rammstein, a track almost as wild as the film itself, that preps the viewers for the rollercoaster of a movie they are about to watch. The film opens with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), knocked unconscious in a dirty empty alley. She is found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who takes her to his home offering help and shelter. Joe then recounts the events of her life that led to her discovery in such a vulnerable state, never failing to emphasize on the fact that she is the cause of her own fall, and that she is – in her own words – an evil person. What then follows is a four-hour long epic; that involves sex, violence, and all the human emotions that go in between.

Despite Von Trier’s well established artistic – and even personal – persona as a provocateur, I believe it is safe to say that none of his previous films has garnered the same amount of controversy as Nymphomaniac did. Beginning with the release of the film’s name, and declaring that it would revolve around “a woman who discovers her eroticism”, the director did get some raised eyebrows, since in a world where almost the entire film industry caters to heterosexual male viewers and their fantasies; it is still problematic to make a film completely about female sexuality. As more material began to be released, the controversy, and even the anticipation, began to grow. And though the film got a number of negative reviews that considered it an exploitation piece, or even a misogynist film, I still believe that Von Trier’s message was unorthodox yet feminist at heart, and here is why:

  1. Exploring Female Sexuality

It’s not very often that female sexuality is handled so clearly on screen. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s mesmerizingly cold performance generates one of the greatest forces controlling this film. Instead of wallowing in guilt and shame about her sexuality, she seems to have accepted herself, and her dangerous appetite. In a society where slut-shaming is a part of everyday media; seeing a character that not only accepts, but even thrives unapologetically in her sex life is always refreshing.

When Steve McQueen released his drama Shame (2011) it also faced controversy, yet it appeared to be based solely on showing a flaccid male penis on screen. Sadly the case with Nymphomaniac is not only the nudity. A major dilemma remains with the film’s unapologetic approach at exploring the wild sexual adventures of its lead female, her wildness that often causes harm to other people is almost celebrated all throughout the film, after all “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” In her pursue of pleasure, Joe ventures into some much tabooed territory, which brings us to the next point.

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  1. Expanding the Limits of Free Speech on Screen

Some of the major controversy formed around the film was caused by the director’s strong, and sometimes even plain bizarre, political views that are spawn all throughout the film’s dialogue. From postulating as to whether using the word “negro” is politically incorrect or simply society’s way of dealing with an unresolvable problem, to exploring some very distorted views regarding the legitimacy of abortions, the man rarely misses a taboo. I have to admit, though I do not agree with most of Von Trier’s views explored in this dialogue, there is something incredibly fascinating about watching a filmmaker being utterly honest in front of his audience. It reestablishes the role of cinema as an expressive art form not limited by societal taboos or governed by partial laws. On the silver screen, nothing is prohibited, and Von Trier knows this better than anyone.

Although the film got some negative remarks regarding these particular segments of the dialogue, claiming them to be “pseudo-intellectual pauses between the porn”, I find these sequences completely unrelated to intellect. It is social commentary in its barest forms, and it raises some much required speculation about the fundamentals of our society.

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  1. Seeing Past the Pornography

How often do you see a porn film where they compare the number of thrusts during sex to Fibonacci’s numbers? The answer, in case you were wondering, is never. Despite Nymphomaniac’s countless sex scenes, it rarely materializes as sexual or even slightly arousing, as it all seems very methodical, and even though the film shows a continuous effort to wander into some extremely explicit sexual territory, it seems to almost constantly return to its original philosophical ground. The main storyline is the relationship that develops between Joe and Seligman, not the promiscuous innumerable relationships that Joe recounts. Eventually, the viewers will find themselves a part of a highly compelling conversation that explores quite the range of topics, from music, to mathematics, to politics, without ever ceasing to impress, and sometimes even shock, its listener.

The fact that Von Trier used body doubles and CGI for filming the hardcore scenes without having the actors carry out any of the acts themselves blurred the line even further for those who considered Nymphomaniac nothing but porn. But then again how often do you see a porn film that in itself mocks the way society deals with sex?

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  1. Abandoning Romance

Von Trier’s approach to explore the sexual side of humans on screen surpassed the long-held stereotypes of Hollywood; the film simply rids itself of the scented candles and lingerie, and unapologetically aims for the raw human emotion, utterly deconstructing the psychology of each and every one of the characters. Nymphomaniac reaches deep into human relationships, baring the core beliefs of it characters, and entertaining its viewer with equal measures of shock and awe. The film’s promotional line alone was “Forget about Love”, and we truly did for four entire hours. Surprisingly enough, the loveless adventures of Joe turned out to be much more relatable than the superficial and corny romance represented in a major portion of the film industry.

One might learn a lesson or two from “The Little Organ School”, a club formed by a younger Joe and her equally promiscuous friends in their youth. Their main goal was to rebel against “the love fixated society”. Of course it sounds extreme, but it forces its viewer to wonder whether we see the same amount of love represented in the media in the real world? Are humans equally kind and loving to each other as they are devoted to idolizing romantic relationships?

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  1. Challenging the Moral Standards

In the beginning of the film, a very simplistic idea is formed about the characters, one that is based solely on the fundamental moral standards of our society. Joe is the guilty nymphomaniac, Seligman the decent older gentleman, and the rest of the characters complete the spectrum. Whether it’s out of a mischievous urge to frequently prank his viewers, or a genuinely bleak view of the human qualities, Von Trier manages to simply shift the dynamic completely and gradually during the film. At the beginning of the final third of his film, the viewers are suddenly confronted with the fact that Joe, despite her promiscuity, her mischief, and even her illegal business, is in fact the moral warrior of this story. Though offering an enlightening story in film is not exactly the newest of ideas, hundreds of films have done it in the past and hundreds will probably do it in the future, however I believe it is rather rare for any filmmaker to go as far as Nymphomaniac. After all, it requires quite the daring artist to try to convince his audience to sympathize with pedophiles, but then again that’s exactly who Von Trier is.

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In conclusion, Von Tier has always been a demanding director. His films require a certain amount of flexibility and a particularly broad-minded audience. Nymphomaniac is easily his most demanding film so far, yet with the right, unprejudiced, and not easily offended mindset, the film offers a dazzling experience seldom found in films. It is simply a ground breaking piece of cinema whose innovation needs to be, if not appreciated, at least respected.

Film Analysis

Film Review: The Reckoning (2002)

 The Reckoning

Set in 1380 England, the film opens with a medieval priest delivering his sermon in an austere chapel filled with poverty stricken peasants. The young priest addresses the harsh ascetic life those villagers lead, proclaiming in his sermon that “This life simply has to be harsh”. This particular line establishes the general atmosphere of the film, and the strict life in which the entire story takes place.

 Based on the novel “Morality Play” by Barry Unsworth, the film tells the story of a renegade priest called Nicholas, who joins a travelling theater company after committing a deadly sin that forces him to escape his village, and dissociate himself from the church. As the band members reach a small town in rural England, where a gruesome murder was allegedly committed by a deaf and mute woman, they find themselves challenged into reenacting the events of the crime, and in doing so; uncover some of the dark secrets regarding religion, temptation, and the political chaos of the time.

 The Reckoning evolves from being simply a mystery tale by including fascinating glimpses into the real life struggles that faced actors of the time. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the film are the sequences presenting the actors’ rituals before taking the stage. Moreover the main dilemma facing the actors when attempting to replicate the crime is the fact that at the time theatrical plays were strictly limited to biblical stories. They find themselves performing one of the earliest morality plays of their time, and in accordance wind up becoming part of the actual deceitful play taking place in the village, as they fight to gain the truth and follow the righteous path of saving the poor woman accused.

 Shot in various locations including Andalucía, Essex, and Wales, the skillful camerawork masterfully captures the beautiful scenery of all three locations. Additionally, various homages to the timeless cinematography of Sven Nykvist are found all throughout the film. Although the editing may appear sloppy at times, the addition of a haunting soundtrack, and an incredible performance from all the cast members, allow the film to captivate its viewers, relocating them into the highly religious yet greatly immoral medieval times.

Rating: 7/10

Film Analysis

Film Review: Ali, The Goat and Ibrahim

The latest film from the Egyptian indie scene is a surreal piece of cinema that almost manifests itself as a fairy tale. Director Sherif El Bendary’s debut feature is a wild card that contains elements from his earlier work on a number of critically acclaimed short films (“Har Gaf Sayfan (2016)”). The film, an Egyptian French Qatari Emirati production (!), was first screened at Dubai International Film Festival, earning one of its leads the Muhr Award for best actor.

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Based on an unpublished story by filmmaker Ibrahim El-Batout (“Winter of Discontent (2012)”, “El Ott (2014)”), and a screenplay by Ahmed Amer, the film tells the story of two misfits who embark on a journey across Egypt to overcome their ailment. Set in one of Cairo’s underprivileged neighborhoods, the film follows the life of its main character, Ali, a young man madly in love with his fiancé Nada, with the single complication of Nada being a goat. Due to his crazy obsession, he becomes the object of ridicule for the entire neighborhood. His mother insists on taking him to a spiritual healer to treat him from what she considers a curse. The healer ends up giving him three stones to throw away in Egypt’s three main waterways; The Nile, The Mediterranean, and The Red Sea.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim, a talented sound engineer who lives in the same neighborhood, is a depressed man who constantly suffers from seizures where he alone can hear an excruciating high frequency noise. He is obsessed with uncovering the meaning of this mysterious noise and spends most of his time trying to record it. In a final effort to get rid of the seizures, Ibrahim visits the same spiritual healer and is also given three stones and assigned the same task as Ali. When the two meet outside the “clinic”, they decide to embark on a journey together to accomplish their mission and hopefully acquire peace.

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Taken at face value, the film is an absurd comedy that aims to entertain its viewer and perhaps garner a considerable amount of laughs at best. However, Ali, The Goat, and Ibrahim most certainly hides much more between its intricate layers. From subtly criticizing the effectiveness of the police in a hilarious scene where an officer aggressively attacks a teddy bear for drugs, to exploring themes of social acceptance and nonconformity, the film rarely misses a beat. Staying faithful to its message for most of its length, the film takes a stance against the harsh and intolerant attitude that has overcome modern Egyptian society. In the end, Ali and Ibrahim’s journey may not have successfully eliminated their eccentricity; instead it helped them thrive in their own idiosyncrasy, and ultimately accept themselves in spite of society’s disapproval.

With the help of a powerful cast that allows the story to reach its full potential, and a mesmerizing soundtrack that opts for the dramatic Daf in most of its tunes, the film elevates itself to be even considered somewhat of an art film. Judging by its highly unconventional story, and quirky sense of humor, it may not be a box-office success, but it certainly establishes its director as a new and talented figure in Egyptian cinema, whose future projects are to be eagerly anticipated.

Rating: 9/10