Thursday, May 26, 2011

Prince of Cunningness, aka Amir Al-Daha (Egypt, 1964)

Given its combination of high technical standards and limited means, the Egyptian film industry –- despite its leanings toward Hollywood style razzle dazzle -- made a rare practice of making costumed period pictures during its golden age, delivering only 20 or so such films between 1935 and 1950, and even less in the following era. However, as the previously reviewed Antar the Black Prince demonstrates, when they did try their hand at the genre, they made up for the lack of spectacle with a surplus of vibrant color, intense drama, and old fashioned star power. 1964’s Amir Al-Daha is another example of this, again -- like Antar -- starring Farid Chawki, the swashbuckling star especially beloved by Egypt’s poor and working class audiences, who affectionately referred to him as “The Beast”.

Amir Al-Daha (the DVD packaging translates the title as The Prince of Cunningness, while the subtitles to the film itself call it An Adept Leader, while yet other sources refer to it as The Artful Prince, so, uh, take your pick) was directed by Henri Barakat, who was one of Egypt’s most honored and prolific filmmakers. Barakat was part of a school of French educated, realist directors who emerged on the Egyptian scene in the late 30s and early 40s. This group benefitted from a post-Nasser shift in the country’s censorship practices that allowed them to confront the topic of social injustice in their homeland. At the same time, Barakat also had a populist streak that saw him helm crowd-pleasing movies in a variety of traditional genres. Amir Al-Daha is an example of this latter tendency, as well as a product of Barakat’s passion for 19th Century literature. The director had tackled literary adaptations before –- his first film was based on a story by Checkov –- and, for Amir Al-Daha, he chose as his source material Dumas’s The Count of Monte Christo.

I admit that I haven’t read The Count of Monte Christo, but it seems that Amir Al-Daha stays pretty close to all of the story’s familiar elements. Instead of Dumas’s sailor hero Edmond Dantes, we have Chawki as caravan leader Captain Hassan, who oversees the transport of goods and supplies across the desert for one Sheikh Fadel. Two members of Hassan’s tribe would like to see him out of the way; the rascal Gaffan because he covets Hassan’s position, and the oily Shahin because he covets Hassan’s bride-to-be, Yasmina (Chweikar). These men -- together with the craven Mr. Metwally, who’s just in it for the silver –- conspire with a corrupt police official named Badran (Mahmoud Morsi) to have Hassan falsely incarcerated so that they can avail themselves of those prizes that his honesty, hard work and all around awesomeness have earned him.

A letter that seems to implicate Hassan in a revolutionary plot against Badran does the trick, and the righteous man is soon tossed into a dungeon-like subterranean prison. After years of imprisonment, with only his dreams of vengeance to keep him going, Hassan accidentally breaks his way into the cell of an older fellow inmate named Im Galal Abdallah. Galal becomes a sort of mentor to Hassan, sharing with him his extensive knowledge and working with him on an escape plan, and on his deathbed reveals to Hassan the location of a vast treasure stashed by him before his imprisonment. Soon after, Hassan stages an escape and makes a beeline to the loot. Now equipped with unimaginable wealth, he takes on the guise of the mysterious Prince Ezz Eldin and sets out, with the help of his hulking manservant, Nour, and Zomouroda (the famed belly dancer and actress Naima Akef), a freed slave girl, to enact an intricate plot to make his betrayers pay back in kind.

In keeping with its source material, Amir Al-Daha is driven more by intrigue than action, and those swashbuckling scenes that do pepper its final act may be too gingerly staged for those hoping for something more rough and tumble. As such, it is a film that gets by more on charm than thrills. Of course, Farid Chawi is as charismatic and commanding as ever, and cinematographer Mahmoud Nasr wraps the whole up in an alluring visual package; when the sets are big enough to allow him to open up a bit, he even at times hints at the level of spectacle seen in more well funded Hollywood productions.

I also think that some Western viewers might find something ameliorative in seeing things that have become signifiers of Arab “otherness” –- the celebratory ululations of the women, the word “jihad” –- presented within such a cozily familiar context. One thing that I’ve learned from reviewing films for 4DK is that, no matter how different our cultures may seem, when we seek escape from our daily lives, the places we go are not all that far removed from one another. The siren's song of good, old fashioned romance and adventure can be understood in every language. Even Bollywood fans will find much that is familiar here, for, as with Antar the Black Prince, the film’s action is broken up by frequent onscreen song and dance numbers. There’s even a prophetic third act number wherein -- as is so commonly seen in old Masala movies –- the act hired to entertain the bad guys instead serenades them with a song about their inevitable and imminent comeuppance.

All of this is to say that Amir Al-Daha is yet another piece of colorful and engaging, escapist fluff from Egyptian cinema’s golden age. As I’ve said before, you don’t need to tell anyone that, of course; you’ll likely sound plenty sophisticated just for saying you watched an Egyptian film. Just be sure not to forget to pop the popcorn while you’re doing all of that snooty posing.


memsaab said...

Oh I am totally in for stuff like this. Egypt here I come!

Todd said...

I don't think you'll be disappointed, Memsaab.

Samuel Wilson said...

This looks great. And what goes around comes around, sort of: One of the Count's aliases in the novel is "Sinbad the Sailor," and his consort is a Middle Eastern princess.

Michael Barnum said...

Am off to look for this DVD! Thanks Todd!!

So far my Egyptian film viewing has consisted of one fantasy film, and some 1950s era comedies (all of which I loved).

Hmmm...and that poster speaks to me...although I can't put into writing what it is saying. I am shy that way.

Todd said...

Mike, I got the DVD from Fine Art Films over in the UK, but you might be able to find it from a more convenient source. In any case, I swear by Fine Art. I've always had a good experience with them.

I've gotta say that Farid Chawki, while he does appear shirtless in the movie, doesn't quite present the picture that the fellow in the poster does. Chawki is more like an angry, later period Anthony Quinn than a dashing Errol Flynn type.