Monday, June 27, 2011

Bride of the Nile (Egypt, 1961)

The changing role of women in an increasingly liberal society was a subject not left untouched by the Egyptian popular cinema of the late 50s and 60s, with probably the most well regarded treatment of the topic being Salah Abouseif’s 1958 drama I Am Free. In that film, actress Lobna Abdel Aziz portrays an educated young Egyptian woman who, after much searching, finds her life’s purpose through political action. Three years later, the same actress would contribute to a very different strain of Egyptian films that also dealt with women’s power, albeit in a more reactionary -- if at once whimsical -- way.

The blueprint for Egyptian films like Bride of the Nile can be clearly seen in the beloved 1949 classic Afrita Hanem, as well as in the later Ismail Yassin’s Phantom, which held the template set by that earlier film pretty much sacrosanct. All three films show us a man’s world turned upside down by the sudden appearance of some kind of magically empowered female enchantress. Americans with no knowledge whatsoever of Egyptian movies will be familiar with this scenario from long-lived TV sitcoms like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie. And, here as there, we’re asked to accept that a woman with almost godlike supernatural powers would content herself simply with being a persistent nuisance in the life of the story’s male protagonist.

Bride of the Nile begins with Sami Fouad, an engineer with an Egyptian oil company, arriving in Luxor with his best buddy in tow. Sami is played by actor Roushdy Abaza, who coincidentally enjoyed the longest of his several marriages with Afrita Hanem leading lady Samia Gamal. His buddy, Fathi, is played by Abdel Moneim Ibrahim, whose shrill comic stylings were discoursed upon in my review of The Secret of the Vanishing Cap, and hence will go unremarked upon here. Sami’s assigned task is to begin the drilling of an oil well smack dab in the middle of the city’s renowned ruins. In this he meets with spirited opposition from Dr. Hassan, an archeologist who objects to this project’s potential to disturb the graves of the pharaohs.

However, Hassan’s interference is the least of Sami’s problems, as, from the outset, the well project is beset by mysterious mishaps. Sami at first suspects Hassan, until it is revealed to him that the culprit is actually Hamis (Lobna Abdel Aziz), a mischievous spirit sent by the pharaohs to dissuade Sami from going forward with his task. Hamis is the ghost of the last “Bride of the Nile”, a virgin sacrificed to the river nearly 5000 years previous as part of an annual ritual to influence the outcome of the flood season. Unfortunately, Hamis is “revealed” only to Sami and no one else, and his flustered reactions to her constant punking cause those around him to increasingly doubt his sanity.

This last set of circumstances leads to Sami being committed to a mental institution, and to Hamis subsequently breaking him out using her magical powers. At this point the sprite reveals to Sami that she has fallen in love with him, because that’s just what happens in these movies, and Sami -- for, I imagine, much the same reasons -- responds reciprocally. Complicating this state of affairs somewhat is the fact that Sami is already engaged to his boss’s daughter. This leads to the faithful replaying of a scene found in both Afrita Hanem and Ismail Yassin’s Phantom, in which the jealous enchantress wreaks supernatural havoc at the wedding with an equally supernatural flare for lowbrow slapstick. In response, Sami leaves a groom-shaped cloud of dust at the altar in his haste to hightail it with Hamis, never giving a second thought to his fiancé or prospective in-laws (who, at this point, conveniently disappear entirely from the narrative).

However, Hamis’ love has a price, in that she demands Sami abandon the well project in return for her making herself visible to the world at large, thus lifting from Sami the stigma of appearing bat shit crazy. This he agrees to with surprisingly few signs of inner conflict, and the two hastily wed. However, come morning, once Hamis has awakened beside Sami with a post-coital glow that is surprisingly unmistakable for a film of this vintage, the problems inherent in their particular May/December romance start to make themselves apparent.

Bride of the Nile doesn’t seem to have much on its agenda beside the good-natured unfurling of its well tested premise, and makes no bones about that fact. Thus, once its central romance is established, its middle section plays out like an easygoing blend of travelogue and patriotic pageant. Hamis tours the pyramids with Sami, explaining to him that, rather than the product of slave labor, they were in fact the embodiment of an ancient jobs program(!). In response, Sami -- romantic sop that he is -- takes her to an auto plant and shows her the production line, thus demonstrating the modern manufacturing techniques that evolved from her contemporaries’ totally non-slavery based industriousness. Then follows a lengthy and colorful sequence in which we watch a modern version of the Nile Festival, including a sacrificial reenactment that ends up taking a somewhat surprising and somber turn.

Elsewhere, Bride of the Nile mines comedy from Hamis’ fish-out-of-water confrontations with the breathtaking future world of 1961. There’s her delighted introduction to the wonders of television, the obligatory makeover scene, and a bit where she mistakes a refrigerator for a sarcophagus.

As agreeable as they are on their own, these aforementioned scenes’ greatest contribution to the film might be the opportunity provided by them for the display of some pretty fabulous mid-century interior design.

Bride of the Nile indeed conforms so closely to the pattern set by its predecessors that perhaps the only ways to distinguish it qualitatively is to focus on its performances. And Lobna Abdel Aziz is certainly as beguiling as one could ask for in the role of Hamis, deftly negotiating a role that requires her to be equal parts vamp and imp (a vimp?), while at the same time maintaining enough gravity to carry the film through the more tragic turn it takes during its third act. Alongside this, the glee she exhibits during her moments as a bringer of chaos is both infectious and seemingly genuine -- as well it might have been; how often does an actress get to raise so much giddy hell with so much impunity, remaining a “heroine” while also being a ferocious engine of anarchy?

As for Roushdy, he does a fine job of being the immovable slab of beef off of which Aziz can happily ricochet. Male star power aside, these films tend to be showcases for their female leads. And, in her own way, Aziz proves to be every bit as delightful as Gamal was as the lady genie in Afrita Hanem and the Greek actress Kitty was as the oddly upbeat murder victim in Phantom. Having seen all three films, I have to say that, in this respect, Aziz beat the odds. Bride of the Nile may be fluff. But if it’s fluff you want, it is essential fluff. And, thanks to Aziz, the familiarity of its motions does nothing to reduce that fact.


Michael Barnum said...

This looks like a fun film, one to be added to my collection for sure!

Anonymous said...

Do you know where I can find this movie online with English subtitles ?

Todd said...

I purchased my subtitled DVD of it from