Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 26, 2008 6:05 pm 
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Night people, a teeming city, and camel's liver for breakfast

A man falls asleep in his car and wakes up to find twenty men in galabiyyas and a camel looking in the windows at him. This could only happen in Egypt. And why did he come here to wait till dawn? To have fresh sautéed camel's liver for breakfast. This is just one moment in The Aquarium's ambitious 48-hour ramble through Cairo focused on two detached observers of life, Youssef (Amr Waked) the camel's liver devotee and an anesthesiologist, and Leila (Hend Sabri), a late-night radio Miss Lonelyhearts who lives with her mother and sister. These two lost souls run into each other towards the end, but any storyline takes second place to the film's meandering examinations of this and that with an emphasis on Cairo life and its repressions, sexual and political.

Included is a woman (Samah Anwar), who would be glad to rent her apartment to Leila if the latter moves out on her own. She, like various others, addresses a monologue to the camera about her character, chiefly focused on the dangers of being a Christian woman living alone in a Muslim neighborhood. Leila's studio assistant Zaki does the same for his character; so does one of Youssef's young patients and Leila's married sister, who points out how detached Leila is, how unwilling to actually go out and help people who most need it. These monologues are an interesting way of opening up secret lives and they enrich the film's human panorama considerably. But of course they don't advance the action; they stop it.

Outside during the daytime, there's a big demonstration in the streets with placards calling for an end to all sorts of things, hunger and poverty for a start. Perhaps Leila's thoughts of an apartment and Youssef's homelessness (he won't move in with his divorced girlfriend and lives in his car rather than his own flat) are gestures toward Cairo housing problems; but unlike last year's Yacoubian Building (Marwan Hamed), The Aquarium barely glances at the urban poor and is mainly concerned with the better-off middle class. Going to a nightclub, Youssef winds up driving with a member of the secret police, who says it's natural--they're the only people you can't escape. Leila has to deal with state censorship of her program, in the person of a veiled lady who thinks a caller with AIDS should be reported.

As there is a lack of privacy in Cairo, there is an omnipresence of drama and life. Youssef and an older friend walk along the Nile Corniche and every piece of bridge has lovers, every car is a little theater whose scenes we see and hear snatches of. The ambient sounds, conversations, songs, radio news, are pungent and never-ending, and there's also a very creditable hip hop group that performs midway and at film's end, as well as an imaginary silent film in black and white in which Leila acts out a children's story she's thought up about a woman in love with a pigeon. Perhaps most awesome visually are simply some long shots of Cairo streets at the outset, teeming multitudes moving in all directions. But the camera's, and the filmmaker's, readiness to look at things leads to occasional stoppages. As Peter Scarlet wrote in a comment for the Tribeca festival, "Nasrallah shoots The Aquarium in long and glacial takes, imbuing the movie [at times] with a stillness that borders on the inert."

Both Leila and Youssef are night people. Her program, recorded earlier, is broadcast in the wee hours, when she may go out and party with her older boyfriend, or dance suggestively with the rap band. He visits his aged father, dying of cancer in a hospital. And as she listens to night secrets, he enjoys hearing the twilight zone mumblings of patients he's putting under. At night, he works a second job assisting a gynecologist who performs illegal abortions and sews up raped women so they can seem to still be virgins.

When Youssef calls Leila's talk show, as he inevitably does, he confesses to a recurrent fantasy of the "Garden of the Fish" (Genenat al asmak) an elaborate concrete garden and aquarium he fears if he once goes in, he may never leave. The symbolism, of the garden being a voyeur's paradise and of Cairo at the same time being a fishbowl, is a little obvious; this is a movie that oscillates between occasional poetry and self-conscious significance. It's true as some have said that Nasser Abdel-Rahmane's all-encompassing screenplay may have looked better on paper, and there may be too much telling and not enough showing. But the images and sound of The Aquarium are often pleasing, and the picture of contemporary Cairo is a rich and naturalistic one, despite the free indulgence in surrealism and self-reflexiveness. Hend Sabri is voluptuous and believable as a sweet but self-centered young woman. Amr Waked, however, comes across as rather a cold fish, and when he laughs, that fish becomes a shark. If this were Rome and the Sixties and Fellini were at the helm his part would go to Marcello Mastroianni, and the lonesome anesthesiologist would carry the sick soul of Europe. There is a Felliniesque quality about the proceedings at times.

The Aquarium, shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, was presented at the Berlinale, got its North American premiere at Tribeca this week, and is also scheduled for festivals in Taormina and Abu Dhabi.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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