Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Struggle on the Nile (Egypt, 1959)

As most of you probably know, the recently departed Omar Sharif, before starting his ascent to international stardom with his role in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, had already become a major star in his native Egypt. Seeing a 26 year old Sharif in 1959’s Struggle on the Nile, it’s easy to see why. Indeed, those who’ve become accustomed to the masculine gravitas projected by the magnificently ‘stached Sharif in so many of his English speaking roles might even be taken aback by the fresh faced and clean shaven version that appears here. This younger Sharif (billed here a “Omar El Cherif”) is downright pretty--though, as we will also see in Struggle on the Nile, mere prettiness is not enough to keep him from being upstaged by a particularly electric performance from one of his co-stars.

In the film, Sharif plays Muhasab, a naïve village boy who has been tasked by his father, the village chieftan, with shepparding the Bride of the Nile, a dilapidated sailing vessel owned by the village, from Luxor to Cairo, where it will be sold for cash that will be used toward purchasing a motorized barge. This, it is believed, will make the village more competitive in matters of commerce. At the same time, the journey is clearly intended as a transition into manhood for Muhasab. We are told that he has been feminized by his mother during his upbringing, as symbolized by an earring she has made him wear since an early age. This is ceremoniously torn from his ear by his father on the eve of his departure.

To look after Muhasab along the way, his father appoints Mujahed, a rugged family friend played by rugged star Rushdy (or “Roushdy”) Abaza, who we’ve previously seen here at 4DK in Oh Islam!, Bride of the Nile and El Achrar. The chief also entrusts Mujahed with a purse containing £6000 that the village has collected toward the purchase of the barge. This he hands over to Muhasab in a potentially costly test of his ability to be responsible for it. We then have a scene of Muhasab bidding a fond farewell to Ward, a village belle whom he promises to marry upon his return (and who is played by an actress I was unable to identify).

Meanwhile, Abu Saafan, a ruthless rival merchant, assigns Hisham, one of his minions, to insert himself into the Bride’s small crew and sabotage the mission. He is also directed to kill Muhasab and steal the £6000. The rest of the crew is made up of two more or less bumbling sidekick types, one of whom is the village idiot who’s in love with a donkey. (As we’ve seen in Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan, the Egyptians don’t shy away from bestiality as a comic subplot.)

Suffice it to say that Muhasab fails his first test of character spectacularly. Upon the Bride’s first stop, at the port of Qena, Hisham lures him to a carnival where he and a couple of cohorts easily relieve him of the purse. It is only by the fist-wielding intervention of Mujahed that it is retrieved, after which Mujahed locks it away in the ship’s cellar. Hisham then recruits the carnival’s hoochie coochie dancer, Nargis (Hind Rostom), to charm her way aboard the boat and get her hands on the money. Arriving at the dock with suitcase in hand, she begs to join them, claiming that she is fleeing from an abusive lover. Above Mujahed’s objections, a smitten Muhasab allows her aboard.

Predictably, Nargis’ presence causes havoc aboard the Bride of the Nile. Mujahed commands her to stay in the ship’s hold, but she continues to make herself a mischievous presence on deck, where she is a crippling distraction to the all-male crew. (Upon seeing her, one of them, according to the English subtitle, exclaims of the light-skinned Nargis, “I love white plumpness!”) One episode, in which she comes on deck to wash her bare legs in the river’s waters, results in the ogling crewmembers allowing the ship to run aground.

Even more destructive are Nargis’ emotional manipulations. She easily seduces the callow Muhasab and begins the work of turning him against Mujahed. Mujahed, for his part, desperately tries to get rid of her, but finds that she outsmarts his every effort to strand, abandon, and even kill her. Eventually, she maneuvers Muhasab, who is quick to forget his romantic commitments at home, into a quickie marriage. Then she sets her romantic sights on Mujahed, inciting in Muhasab a jealous rage that leads to a physical confrontation between the two friends.

I have elsewhere described Hind Rostom as Egypt’s answer to Rita Hayworth, and have since learned that she was described in her time as the Egyptian Marilyn Monroe. However, if she must be described by way of comparison, I suggest that we broaden the field of potential corollaries to include the female stars of Indian cinema. I say this because I think that fans of classic Bollywood films will see in her an Egyptian equivalent of the great Helen. Like Helen, she typically plays the role of the vamp, siren, or homewrecker, and as such must, within the male dominated culture she inhabits, eventually be punished for inflaming the libidos of the men around her, as well as for the misdeeds those men have committed as a result.

Rostom, who has given outstanding performances in Egyptian classics like Cairo Station and Sleepless, takes to her role in Struggle on the Nile with astonishing ferocity. It is nothing if not a bravura performance, exhibiting, on the one hand, a scalding sensuality, and, on the other, a chilling sociopathic remove. It is a classic femme fatale turn, no doubt the result of Rostom taking full advantage of a role that keeps her front and center for much of the film.

Despite the heat that Rostom brings to the film, the fact that so much of its drama takes place within such a confined space renders it a bit of a slow boat to Cairo, pacing-wise. Its focus on a destructive love triangle playing out on a boat tempts comparisons to Polanski’s Knife in the Water, although director Atef Salem in no way manages the sustained tension that Polanski does in his film—nor, apparently, does he mean to. Instead, Salem treats much of Nargis’ bedevilment of the men around her as antic farce, complete with whimsical music. This creates even more of a disconnect once events take a markedly darker turn near the film’s conclusion. (Beware yon spoilers ahead.)

Indeed, when Nargis’ comeuppance arrives it is a gruesome one. And this despite the fact that Muhasab’s horny impulsiveness and terrible decision making has played as much or more of a part in the Bride of the Nile’s difficulties than any of her scheming did. Nonetheless, upon arriving home with the much anticipated barge, Muhasab is given a hero’s welcome by the village—and happily falls into the welcoming arms of his none-the-wiser fiancé. He is, by all appearances, no more of a man and no wiser than when he left. Given that, this dubiously “happy” ending tempts one to turn a side eye toward the two hours of Struggle on the Nile that has preceded it.

As far as recommending Struggle on the Nile goes, I'm torn. On the plus side, it is considered by many to be a classic of Egyptian cinema. Hind Rostom’s performance deserves to be seen, as do those of Rushdi Abaza and Omar Sharif, despite my having found Sharif’s character loathsome. The strain of misogyny that runs through it, however, has to be reckoned with. Our choice, on the one hand, is to turn away from the chauvinistic view of womankind that the film presents. On the other, it is to celebrate the woman who—in the tradition of all great screen femme fatales, Helen and Rita Hayworth included—took what little was offered her and imbued it with as much power, ferocity and raw living spirit as her considerable skills allowed. I suppose which of those you choose depends on the extent to which you see that as any kind of power at all.


dfordoom said...

I may have to check this one out, especially given that the DVD apparently includes English subtitles. I've yet to see an Egyptian film although I've seen a couple of Turkish films. Your review has definitely tempted me.

Todd said...

Thanks, D. You know, I wouldn't recommend watching this one as your first Egyptian film. Maybe take a look at some of my other reviews under the "Egyptian Cinema" tag and choose from there.