Friday, November 26, 2010

Sleepless (Egypt, 1958)

Sleepless (aka La Anam, or I Don't Sleep) is not only a classic of Egyptian cinema's golden age, but also one of the first Egyptian features to be shot in color. As the screen caps below clearly demonstrate, director Salah Abu Seif knew how to use Eastman Color's saturated hues to startling effect, and that makes this a film that's hard for me to resist. Be it the work of Bava, Chor Yuen, or Douglas Sirk, a Japanese exploitation film from the 70s or a Thai classic from the 60s, I've always been a sucker for a movie with a hyper-real color palette, and I'm no less mesmerized by Sleepless, a melodrama whose characters appear to be going through their life struggles while trapped inside an over-rich dessert.

The film, based on a controversial novel by author Ihsan Abd Al-Quddus, tells the story of Nadia, the pampered only child of a wealthy family who has been raised by her divorced father from the age of two. By the time we catch up with Nadia at the age of 16, it's become disconcertingly clear that, with her sexual awakening, her attachment to her father has taken on a romantic cast, and that her tolerance for being anything but the only woman in dad's life is nonexistent. Thus, when her father marries an adoring model housewife by the name of Safia (played by the very Anglo Mariam Fakhr Eddine), Nadia does everything in her power to sabotage the relationship, ultimately conjuring up an invented affair between Safia and her young uncle Aziz that drives her father to banish both parties from his home.

At the same time, Nadia attempts to sublimate her feelings by entering into an affair with Mostafa, a much older playboy with a modern apartment whose every accoutrement -- especially when held in contrast to the riot of bourgeois classicism on display in Nadia's family home -- virtually screams "cad". Nonetheless, she is racked with guilt over the unhappiness her deceptions have wrought upon her father, and attempts to set things right by introducing him to Kawthar, a sultry friend of hers from school (Hind Rostom, coming across here like the Arab world's answer to Rita Hayworth). Unfortunately, it's not until after dad has fallen for and married the young woman that Nadia discovers that Kawthar is merely on the grift, and already has a boyfriend on the side. Perversely determined to preserve her dad's marital happiness at all costs, Nadia decides that she must go to any length to conceal the affair, even going so far as entering into a sham marriage with Kawthar's lover.

Sleepless was a big hit in its day, due in no small part to its all star cast. Nadia is played by the legendary Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, who -- given the intimations of emotional incest and the queasy, age inappropriate pairings she's depicted in -- we can at least be thankful was 25 at the time. And yes, that is Hamama's then-husband, a young and dashing Omar Sharif, in the role of uncle Aziz, then near the height of his stardom in Egyptian cinema, but still a few years off from making his English language debut in Lawrence of Arabia. On the whole, the cast commit themselves admirably to the overwrought proceedings, a feat made even more impressive by just how outrageous the subject matter must have seemed at the time.

Throughout Sleepless we hear Nadia speaking in voiceover, engaging in a one-way conversation with God in which she alternately begs Him for answers as to why she does the things she does and beseeches Him, in his role as "mighty avenger", to punish her for her sins. Whatever we think of Nadia's behavior, it is clear that she is suffering, and that, while she is fully aware of the destructive consequences of her actions, she feels nonetheless helplessly compelled to commit them. Given this, I was curious to see whether Sleepless, in its conclusion, would take a therapeutic or moralistic approach to Nadia, though I was not all that surprised to see it take the latter. Nadia's god, it turns out, is indeed merciless, and Sleepless, despite its challenging subject matter, is not quite as modern as its surface might at first lead you to think.

To say the least, I was disappointed to see the film ultimately show such a lack of compassion -- that a female character so well drawn could, in the end, not be seen for the wounded child that she was and instead had to be dealt with as being simply a destructive force worthy of divine retribution. Still, I have to admit that, as a visual stylist of unquestionable mastery, Salah Abu Seif still seduces, rolling out his creation with one stunning composition after the next. It's just a shame that, while we can still enjoy what he has so meticulously rendered in an aesthetic sense, in the end we have to do so with our heads and hearts on hold.


memsaab said...

Methinks this bears a sad resemblance to many Indian films which seem promisingly progressive and then devolve into status-quo conservatism :(

"..going through their life struggles while trapped inside an over-rich dessert"---this is why I love reading your blog, Todd :)

Todd said...

Methinks you're right. And thanks! I'm glad I could bring a smile to your emoticon's face.

Anonymous said...

Those are some really white Egyptians there. Had I seen the screenshots without the article I would have guessed the film was Mexican.

Todd said...

And tellingly, the only dark skinned character who appears on screen is the family servant.