Back to Alexandria review: Nadine Labaki navigates Egypt's class divide in sharp melodrama

Tamer Ruggli's film, showing at Cinema Akil, portrays a woman's psychological journey home to her ailing mother

Seasoned Lebanese actress and filmmaker Nadine Labaki plays Sue in Back to Alexandria. Photo: Orange Studio
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Parents mess us up, whether they intend to or not. That's one of life's near-absolute certainties, ranking just behind death and taxes, and it's one of the most familiar themes in fiction history.

Back to Alexandria, the new film by Tamer Ruggli, is interested in the hows and whys of that particular certainty. As the film begins, we meet Sue, played by the seasoned Lebanese actress and filmmaker Nadine Labaki. She's a psychoanalyst living in Switzerland whose job it is to help people sort through those questions for themselves.

We can infer quickly that Switzerland is a sort of refuge for Sue. She gets a call from her aunt, who informs her that her mother Fairouz (no, not that Fairouz) has had a stroke, and she will have to return to Alexandria to care for her ailing parent, and possibly say goodbye.

It doesn't take long for the scaffolds that Sue has constructed in her mind to deal with their troubled relationship to fall. That night, she hears music coming from her living room. She grabs a makeshift weapon to ward off a potential intruder, only to find Fairouz, dressed in her finest attire, standing in her living room.

Her mother, played by the award-winning French actress Fanny Ardant, is only in her mind, of course. We know that, though it's unclear at times whether Sue does. Throughout the film, as Sue makes the journey across Egypt, visiting various family members along the way, as well as some of her mother's old haunts, her mother is always beside her, scolding her for her misdoings at every turn.

At times they'll converse, and when others overhear Sue talking back, she has to make excuses, well aware of what's happening to her. At other moments, she seems completely unable to differentiate reality from hallucination. Her mother, for instance, is often accompanied by a small child who Sue doesn't recognise. At times, he's clearly a dreamlike presence, and at other times a literal companion on her journey, joining her at dinner parties and interacting with others. Is she losing her mind? Or are we living in imagination? Perhaps it's a bit of both.

This is not a journey forward, however. It's a journey into Sue's past. When she was young, we learn, she fell in love with the son of her building's doorman. Her mother, ever-flamboyant in her embrace of her aristocratic roots, sabotaged the relationship, getting the young man thrown in jail after falsely accusing him of theft.

This, understandably, messed Sue up. She's never got over the trauma of losing him or the guilt of how it happened. She hates her mother for ruining her chance at love. She hates the upper-class world that she was raised in. She hasn't spoken to her mother (outside of her own mind) in years. But, at the same time, she's absorbed more of those values than she cares to admit.

Back to Alexandria may spend a lot of time on the hows and whys of this troubled mother-daughter relationship, but the most interesting question it explores is the one that comes next: can we ever truly move on from the ways our parents hurt us?

At first, it seems the answer may be no. At one point, Sue takes a ride with a handsome taxi driver. He's a mechanical engineer as well, and a tour guide. This is the only way for many to continue living in modern Egypt, he explains.

Their chemistry is clear, but their bond is severed when her mother appears in the back seat, reminding her that she shouldn't fraternise with those of lower stock than she. Immediately, Sue demands the man drop her off before they reach her destination, dismissing him like she once had to dismiss the doorman's son. She resents the seemingly archaic values of the aristocracy, but she still has not escaped them, even after deliberately building a life far away from the world that reared her.

Whether we can ever truly escape the way we were raised is an open question, both in life and in fiction. In Kaouther Ben Hania's Oscar-nominated documentary Four Daughters, for example, it's unclear whether the titular daughters will someday perpetuate the abuse that was inflicted on them, just as it was inflicted on their mother.

In Ari Aster's underrated Beau is Afraid, also released last year, Joaquin Phoenix plays a man paralysed by his overbearing mother, fatally passive and unable to move past their most painful interactions from his childhood.

Ruggli's film has a lot in common with Beau is Afraid, its absurdity notwithstanding. Aster's film enlists the Broadway heavyweight Patti LuPone to play Beau's mother, with a commanding and ostentatious melodrama that harnesses her outsized stage presence. Ardant is used here in a similar fashion, moving and speaking with a theatrical flair that is in sharp contrast to Labaki's restrained naturalism, which makes her seem as paralysed as Phoenix's Beau in each scene they share.

This story, however, has a more hopeful outlook. As the film goes on, Sue begins to break free from the shackles of how she was raised, rejecting the tired ways of her family and the values they are trapped by.


Director: Tamer Ruggli

Starring: Nadine Labaki, Fanny Ardant

Rating: 3.5/5

How she does that, though, is by answering the aforementioned question “why?". She learns that her mother had the same thing happen to her as a young woman, as her family forced her to abandon the man she truly loved to marry the man they saw fit. Fairouz did love her, she realises, and was doing what she thought was best because it's what was done to her. With that epiphany, she finally escapes the cycle.

There is a broader message here about modern Egypt, and it is an optimistic one. The aristocracy is seen as decrepit, reminiscent of the classic documentary Grey Gardens (1975), about two oblivious women living in a decaying mansion in disarray.

Back to Alexandria, too, presents traditional Egyptian high society as a dying world. If Sue can move on from it, then others can, too. The overall class divide that plagues their society, the film implies, can be a thing of the past, if each person is able to grapple with their trauma and thus free themselves of it.

It's a nice message. Whether the broader reality we live in reflects it is another story altogether.

Back to Alexandria is now showing at Cinema Akil in Dubai

Updated: May 03, 2024, 6:02 PM

Director: Tamer Ruggli

Starring: Nadine Labaki, Fanny Ardant

Rating: 3.5/5