Monday, January 30, 2012
Given that most of my exposure to Arab popular cinema has been through viewings of the relatively genteel and apolitical films of Egyptian cinema's golden age, Wolves Don't Eat Meat comes as a bit of a shock. Believe me, if there were pearls around my neck, I’d be clutching them. In making the film, Samir Khouri, a Lebanese director filming in Kuwait with an Egyptian and Lebanese cast, reportedly aimed to take advantage of what turned out to be a very brief relaxation in Egypt's censorship standards, but his kid-in-a-candy-store approach to the endeavor only ended up getting the film banned upon release.
Which is not all that surprising, given that Wolves Don’t Eat Meat (which was originally known as Zi’ab La Ta’kol Al Lahm and released under the international title Kuwait Connection) contains about a thousand percent more full frontal nudity than you'd ever expect to see in a film from a predominately Muslim country. And that's not even considering the jaw dropping amount of grand guignol violence on display in the film -- or the fact that this was the early 70s, when filmmakers everywhere, regardless of creed or country, were allowing themselves to go just a little bit crazy in their attempts to see what they could get away with.
According to an interview with Mondo Macabro’s Pete Tombs and Andy Starke over at Cinema Strikes Back, previous to making Wolves, Khouri had worked in Italy under such directors as Sergio Bergonzelli, whose output of rough sexploitation fare included lurid entries like In the Folds of the Flesh. And, indeed, that influence here is clear, though what’s really interesting about Wolves Don’t Eat Meat is just how many different trends in 1970s international cinema it channels, making its exact lineage hard to nail down.
Following a credit sequence set to Patrick Samson’s Italo disco hit “Hey Yaba Hey”, Wolves kicks off its narrative proper with a wild car chase through the streets of Kuwait, at the conclusion of which hired assassin Anwar (Ezzat El Alaili) staggers away from his wrecked car and into the desert. Eventually he somehow comes upon the mansion of a shady underworld type named Saleh, at which some strange cross between a party, an orgy and an occult ritual is taking place. Anwar collapses and is carried by Saleh’s men to a spare bedroom, where he is cared for by Saleh’s wife, Maya (well known Egyptian actress Nahed Sherif, whose frequent nudity here guarantees this title a strong showing in next year’s 4DK Search Term Tweet-a-thon).
In a bizarre coincidence, it turns out that Maya is an old flame of Anwar’s, a former bar dancer whom he met while working as a war correspondent in Southeast Asia. Further signaling our and Anwar’s entrance into some kind of uncanny alternate reality is Saleh’s sister, a wizened crone in a wheelchair portrayed by an actor in an aggressively obvious rubber mask -- and with whom Maya appears to be having a lesbian affair. And then, of course, there is the fact that Saleh is seen receiving a visitation from the ghost of his previous wife.
Upon recovering, Anwar tells Maya that the atrocities he witnessed while working as a journalist resulted in him becoming “blood-thirsty”. Among these was the massacre at Deir Yellin, an attack upon a Palestinian village that left hundreds of men, women and children dead and would go on to become a pivotal event in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Anwar subsequently fell in with the beautiful and psychotic hit woman Linda (Lebanese actress Silvana Badrkhan, also frequently nude), with whom he has come to Kuwait to retrieve ten million dollars worth of jewels stolen from the Mafia. This caper, as such things are won’t to do in stories of this type, has gone completely pear-shaped, with the result that Anwar now is being hunted not only by both Linda and the Police, but American mobster “Barney” and his gang as well.
Meanwhile, Saleh, not blind to the obvious attraction between Anwar and his wife, turns threatening, which leads to the two lovers taking flight upon Maya’s luxury yacht -- where, in one of the film’s many uses of symbolism that even the most remedial student of film theory couldn’t miss, they make love on a bed blanketed with live doves. Saleh’s menace is then diminished somewhat when he is mysteriously murdered. This event gives birth to a whodunit subplot that you’d think might ensnare Anwar and Maya in its web, but which actually threatens to eclipse their story altogether as it takes on a life of its own as a parallel narrative. Finally this all leads circuitously to another insane car chase and a blood spattered finale in which all of Anwar’s various nemesis converge upon him at once -- and then, more surprisingly, to a hallucinatory final sequence that echoes Fellini’s 8½.
Throughout all of this, Khori makes sure to place his film’s simulated violence against a jarring backdrop of the real thing. The flashbacks to Deir Yellin are made up of real documentary footage that is both graphic and harrowing. A bloody fight with hatchets is staged in an actual slaughterhouse, the pretend carnage playing out amid shots of live sheep being butchered. Because of this, fans of movie-style blood and guts not inured to the sight of actual dead and dying children and animals may want to look for their thrills elsewhere.
Despite its many aforementioned nods to Italian genre films -- be they Polizzioteschi, Giallo, or Gothic Horror -- what Wolves Don't Eat Meat seems to be most in its heart of hearts is a violent political art film. Whether those pop cinema elements are then intended as a seductive candy coating or a further provocation I can't say. But I have noticed that a number of online writers who have approached the film as a genre piece have characterized it as more or less a bad, if interesting, one. I can't say that, either. To me, it's too fiercely unique, too personal, and too genuinely disturbing to be subjected to such easy judgment. For me to achieve a clearer state of mind on the subject will no doubt require repeat viewings, of which I suspect there will be many.