(director: Marwan Hamed; screenwriter: from the novel by Alaa’ Al-Aswany/Wahid Hamid; cinematographer: Sameh Selim; editor: Khaled Marei; music: Khaled Hammad; cast: Adel Imam (Zaki El Dessouki), Nour El-Sherif (Haj Azzam), Yousra (Christine), Essad Youniss (Dawlat El Dessouky), Ahmed Bedir (Malaak), Hend Sabri (Bothayna), Khaled El Sawy (Hatem Rachid), Khaled Saleh (Kamal El Fouly), Ahmed Rateb (Fanous), Somaya El Khashab (Soad), Bassem Samra (Abd Raboh), Mohamed Imam (Taha El Shazly), Youseff Daoud (Fekry Abdel Shaheed, lawyer); Runtime: 165; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Imad Adeeb; Strand Releasing; 2006-Egypt-in Arabic with English subtitles)

“It’s a bold film for an Arabic country.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The first feature film from director Marwan Hamed is a creepy, glossy and crude soap opera tale that has a group of colorfully stereotyped tenants of the Yacoubian apartment building located in central Cairo be a microcosm for modern Egyptian society. It’s based on the bestselling 1990 novel by Alaa Al Aswany and adapted to the screen by Wahid Hamed, the director’s father. It makes a number of stinging comments on the state of modern Egypt, as it points out how politically corrupt the country is and how all branches of society are dissolute from the fundamentalist Islamic religion to the democratic political system. It also shows how both the rich and poor are exploited through their commercial dealings or personal sex lives, and how class differences keep people down. The title is derived from the luxury apartment building in Cairo, named for the Armenian man who built it, in 1937. It remained a first-class building in the Pasha era but lost most of its best tenants after the 1956 war with Israel, and in modern times the beautiful building has come into disrepair and is living off its fading glory as a less prominent tenant moved in besides the remaining decadent upper-class ‘beys’ and ‘pashas’–there are now the downtrodden and even immigrant working-class from Upper Egypt living on the roof that was once the servants’ quarters.

Though overlong, flawed dramatically and needing a pruning job, the sordid tale hits a nerve by not holding back its punches and covering such taboo Arabic subjects as homosexuality and abortion. It’s a bold film for an Arabic country, bringing up issues usually hidden from the eyes of westerners. For that alone this meandering and uneven epic is worth a look, as it exposes us to an Arabic culture few of us in the West ever get to see.

It features a number of tenants (too many to follow all of them) and follows their intermeshing story that uses the majestic building as the focal point that brings them all together. It takes its longest look at Zaki Pashi (Adel Imam), a pathetic, wealthy, elderly bachelor, who is a Paris educated engineer but leads an idle hedonistic life as a chaser after younger women. His womanizing involves him in a nasty embarrassing legal feud with his roommate overbearing evil sister, Dawlat (Essad Youniss), who has him evicted from their late father’s apartment for being mentally unfit. It tells in detail the controversial storyline of how a sophisticated wealthy gay newspaper editor (Khaled El Sawy) seduces a naïve, uneducated, countryboy, married soldier (Bassem Samra). We follow the radicalization to extremist Islamic beliefs of the roof dwelling poor doorman’s son, Taha (Mohamed Inam), who fails to get into the police academy because of class and is later tortured by the police hunting terrorists and whose attractive virgin girlfriend, Buthayna (Hend Sabri), can’t hold a job because the dirty old men who employ her want to grope her or make sexual advances and she finally winds up with the foolish Zake Pashi. It turns most of its anger and shame on the sleazy pretentious God-fearing Muslim, Haj Azzam (Nour El Sherif), a sexually frustrated self-made millionaire with a booming car dealership who has his comeuppance after he secretly takes another younger wife (Somaya El Khashab) and again when his vain political ambitions with a powerful corrupt city official (Khaled Saleh) takes him down a few more notches and exposes him as a greedy sniveling drug trafficker who needs protection from the cops from his crooked political allies.

Some of the biggest stars in Egypt appear, in a film that cost the most to make in Egyptian history but was rewarded by breaking all box office records in its homeland. But the awkwardly executed film, directed in an unsure way by the 28-year-old inexperienced director, by the conclusion leaves you not caring much about most of these troubling disparate characters. They all seem lost in their stupidity, arrogance, and inability to find their inner dignity, as they serve only as a metaphor or social commentary on contemporary Egypt. It was Egypt’s official Oscar submission.

The Yacoubian Building Poster

REVIEWED ON 5/2/2008 GRADE: B-     https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/