Sunday, April 11, 2010

Afrita Hanem (Egypt, 1949)

My love affair with golden age Egyptian cinema deepens with Afrita Hanem. This is a true classic of Egyptian popular cinema, starring two of the country's most legendary performers: singer, composer, and virtuoso instrumentalist Farid Al Atriche, and Samia Gamal, whose international notoriety as a mistress of the belly dancing arts extended to her becoming a star nightclub attraction in the U.S. during the 1950s. The pair starred together in several highly successful films during the late 40s and early 50s, and were also a couple off-screen. As with 1947's Habib al Omr -- the film that introduced the pair as a screen duo and established Gamal as a movie star -- Farid Al Atriche also produces here, in addition to co-starring and composing all of the songs. The chemistry between these two is palpable, as is their shared joy in performing, which makes this yet another captivating piece of pure, escapist fluff from an industry that might, to the uninitiated, seem like an unlikely source for such.

Such is Afrita Hanem’s landmark status that even someone with as slight a familiarity with Egyptian films as I has seen evidence of its influence. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but now having seen Afrita Hanem, it’s hard to imagine that the previously reviewed Ismail Yassin’s Phantom, a movie released five years later, would have existed without it. As in that subsequent film, we again have a beleaguered hero’s romantic life being complicated by the attentions of a mischievous female spirit, in this case a fetching, hip shaking genie played by Gamal. (The English translation of the film’s title is Lady Genie.) Not the most original scenario, of course -- and, in fact, the well-tread territory of 1960s American sit coms -- but one that nonetheless has the potential to beguile when handled with the level of wit and sincere eagerness to please exhibited here.

Farid Al Atriche stars here as Asfour, a nightclub singer who is smitten with Aleya (Lola Sedki), the gold digging daughter of the equally avaricious Mr. Queshta, the owner of the club where Asfour works. As the result of a cleverly orchestrated series of misunderstandings, Asfour comes to believe that Aleya has accepted his proposal of marriage, when in fact she has agreed to marry a wealthy, Europeanized dandy by the name of Mimi (Abdel Salam Al Nabulsy). When Asfour goes to seek the blessings of Aleya’s dad, the old man, never one to miss an opportunity to up his take, informs Asfour of the girl’s engagement to Mimi, but also tells him that, if he can top the three thousand dollar dowry that Mimi has agreed to pay, Aleya can be his. Of course, being a classic starving artist type, Asfour has no hope of amassing such a sum, and so goes off, loudly lamenting over his poverty.

It is at this point that a mysterious bearded sage steps out of the shadows and offers to help Asfour -- while obviously at the same time wanting to teach him an age-old lesson about the primacy of character over cash. (“Maybe your poverty has a wisdom you can’t fathom”, he tells Asfour.) The man directs Asfour to a cave, where the young man, not so surprisingly, finds both a lamp and, after applying a bit of elbow grease, the curvaceous and irrepressibly ebullient genie within it, who goes by the name of Kharamana (Samia Gamal). Kharamana is immediately convinced that Asfour is the reincarnation of Asfarot, the man who was her lover at the time of her first being imprisoned within the lamp, over a thousand years previous. This, as you might expect, makes for some complications, for, while it is now Kharamana’s duty to grant Asfour unlimited wishes, most of those wishes will involve getting him into Aleya’s arms, which is something that Kharamana naturally can’t bear.

Thus, though Kharamana constantly reminds Asfour that she is his servant, it quickly becomes clear that she is in fact his puppet master, adhering to the letter of his demands while at the same time guiding his fate as she sees fit. And this she does with no small amount of childlike glee, reveling merrily in her ability to steer every one of Asfour’s attempts to woo Aleya toward chaos and catastrophe. Meanwhile, after losing his job at the nightclub, Asfour, with Kharamana’s encouragement, rents a nearby music hall, where he plans to stage an operetta he’s composing, one long left unfinished, but which he has now found the inspiration to complete. (In a nice nod to real world concerns encroaching upon fantasy, Asfour and his manager decide to take the pragmatic route to securing a venue, leery of the legal and tax ramifications that might accompany a music hall that has simply been materialized out of thin air by a genie.)

Asfour then begins a long and frustrating search for a lead dancer for the production. Of course, Kharamana has already demonstrated that she has all the necessary requirements for this role, but for the fact that she can only be seen by Asfour. To remedy this, she produces a real world version of herself, a trash talking tough cookie (the subtitles translate her oft repeated catchphrase as “No way, Jose”) by the name of Semsema, who is also played by Samia Gamal. Soon, with Asfour and Semsema at center stage, the work-in-progress performances of the operetta are drawing crowds away from old man Queshta’s nightclub. In response, Queshta directs his daughter to focus her amorous intentions upon Asfour, in the hope of wooing him back into the fold and eliminating the competition. By this point, of course, sparks have begun to fly between Asfour and his star dancer, setting the stage for what will become a madcap four-sided triangle involving Asfour, Aleya, Kharamana’s corporeal alter ego, and Kharamana herself.

Now, as both the plot and the specializations of its stars have probably already indicated, Afrita Hanem is indeed a musical, though perhaps one that those accustomed to the more Western-ears-friendly cadences of woods Bolly and Holly might find an acquired taste. Unlike the tunes in the aforementioned Ismail Yassin’s Phantom -- many of which were Jazz influenced -- Farid Al Atriche’s compositions here all feature the spiraling quarter step melodies and mournful cadences of traditional Arabic music. And, while these all give our male star the chance to demonstrate what is without question a beautiful and marvelously supple voice, they are not likely to set the toes of uninitiated non-Arab listeners immediately to tapping. (Interestingly, the only time that European style harmony enters the score is as an accompaniment to the devilish enticements of some underworld denizens who are attempting to tempt Asfour away from his destiny with Kharamana.) That said, those who find themselves alienated by the sounds of these songs will perhaps find an ameliorating comfort zone in the manner of their presentation, which is a cozily familiar concatenation of twirling, smile-pasted chorus girls and fanciful sets marked by glittering stairways to the stars and gauzy billows of curtain.

And speaking of familiar, let me say that, in choosing to review Afrita Hanem, I initially thought that I was taking a step further into the broader world of classic Egyptian popular cinema, and away from those Ismail Yassin comedies -- like Phantom and A Trip To The Moon -- that had provided my introduction to it. Well, look who turns up in Afrita Hanem! Mind you, the part of Asfour’s best friend and manager Boqo is a great role for Yassin. Far from being just a comic relief simpleton, he in fact appears to be the only mortal on hand who knows what time it is, and as such tirelessly -- and with much good humor -- tries to steer Asfour toward his own heart’s best interests. Such a substantial supporting role, to my mind, offers a perfect showcase for Yassin, whose sleepy eyed bearing and marble mouthed delivery give him a kind of unique, slack-jawed charm that, while a welcome contrast to Afrita Hanem’s traditionally glamorous lead players, runs the risk of overstaying its welcome when burdened with carrying to much of the action.

Afrita Hanem concludes with a show-stopping production number in which Asfour and Semsema, having finally acknowledged their love for one another, are plunged into the underworld, where they must plead their case to the devil himself. Needless to say, Old Scratch ends up being won over by the depth of their affection, and frees them to live out there lives together in the mortal realm. The whole thing ends with a chorus line of male and female devils and demons prancing in circles around the couple while singing love’s praises. Like all of the production numbers in Afrita Hanem, it has its share of visible seams, but is nonetheless leant a considerable amount of glamour by the sheer wattage and infectious enthusiasm of its star participants. If the appeal of all of this sounds dubious to you, I nonetheless suggest that you check it out for yourself. Honestly, I dare you -- nay, I double dare you -- to hate this movie.


Anonymous said...

Lordy... you hooked me with the first screen cap!

As soon as I catch my breath, I'll start reading your undoubtedly excellent and informative review. ;)

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Now I want to believe that I Dream of Jeannie stole its basic idea from an Egyptian musical.
Well done!

memsaab said...

Oh dear God you have finally done it, Todd. Lured me into another cinema world which I don't have time for...I barely finished reading this review before this dvd was on its way.

Prof. Grewbeard said...

and Netflix has it, score!

Todd said...

Thanks, everybody! Memsaab, this is indeed a momentous day; I have just completed a victory lap around the room. I hope you're planning to review the movie once you've had a chance to watch it, because I'd love to read your take on it.

House: One has to wonder, doesn't one?

Prof: That's great news. It never even occurred to me that Netflix might have this. I notice they also have another old Samia Gamal film, as well as a compilation dvd of various dance scenes from throughout her career.

Dave: Gotcha! I know you're a sucker for old school glamour, just like I am.

Michael Barnum said...

This is such a wonderful movie! I picked it up on a trip to Seattle a few years back (there are a surprising number of Arabic music/video stores in Seattle, to my utter delight!), watched it upon my return home and loved every second of it!

It really looks and plays just like a typical 1940s Hollywood musical-comedy, well, except for the music was a bit of a jolt at first to hear such old fashioned sounding (to me) Arabic singing when the costumes and characters were leading me to expect the boogie woogie big band sound!

A Iraqui family I know, who recently immigrated to the US, were thrilled to pieces when they found out I had this movie. It evidently was a staple of Iraqi late night TV back in the 70s and 80s and they were quite happy to get to see it again.

Todd said...

Mike, I too was surprised by the fact that all of the tunes were so traditional, since, as I mentioned, Ismail Yassin's Phantom, which had a similar nightclub setting, did indeed feature some boogie woogie numbers.