There is a new trend emerging in the Egyptian film scene: in the past three years, a subtle socio-political theme has laced comedies and elevated them to being about more than just laughs.
The recent spate of films has been varied – from ensemble drama Mamno' El Eqterab Aw El Tasweer to Hany Ramzi comedy Qosty Byogaani – but what binds them together is an acute examination of the lives of the Egyptian underclass.
Where before such films blamed unfavourable conditions on extraneous circumstances, the new breed of titles are not afraid to look inward and examine how dubious behaviour begins with poverty, and how poverty begins with society. In short, they are morality tales disguised as comedies.
The prevalence of such films, including recent releases El Abla Tamtam and Laylah Hana Wa Sorour, was enough for one of Egypt's most esteemed comic actors, Boumi Fouad, to spot the trend a recent interview on Arabic radio. "There is definitely a new style coming down and I would describe it as a social comedy," he said. "The stories are more simple and discuss reality, and it has none of the silliness of before."
Fouad describes his new film Nawart Masr as the latest in that vein. Showing in UAE cinemas this week, the movie is a light comedy that discusses the nature of friendships, as well as something that will surely resonate with viewers here: the challenges of living abroad.
The film begins by examining the lives of two friends, Hashem (Mohamed Tharout) and Ali (Hisham Ismael). Both are family men struggling to make ends meet, with Ali chronically overlooked in his sales job, while Hashem's oily personality sees him looking for new jobs regularly.
With tension rising in their respective households, they see an opportunity for financial relief via old school friend Hamad (Fouad). The latter has spent 15 years away working in Kuwait, and the boys think their old college mate is minted and will be generous with his earnings.
So begins a comedic battle between Ali and Hashem as both families attempt to woo Hamad through generous meals and outings, including an ill-fated trip to a seedy nightclub. But all is not what it seems with Hashem.
While he hints at his riches, he is a tired and broken man as he weighs the price of abandoning his family home to make money in the Gulf. "What have I lost?" he asks Ali as he reflects, on the Nile.
Nawart Masr handles the trio of characters' misgivings deftly, and showcases the relationship problems that are an off-shoot of their financial woes. Both men struggle with threats to their masculinity, with Ali meek and resigned to his fate, while Hashem lashes out at his wife and young children. Meanwhile, their growing list of lies to Hamad unravels their plans and places their respective families' lives on the line, as well as their friendship.
Director Shady Ali, who as well as directing a trio of low-budget comedies, including last year's solid Yajalou Aamer, has been much busier as a director of photography, with a range of Egyptian television dramas, including this year's Al Shareet Al Ahmar. His skills in shooting pensive domestic scenes is an asset here, but his handling of the comedic tone of the film is a problem.
Nawart Masr veers erratically between comedic set pieces and heartfelt reflections, and in doing so loses much of its potency on both fronts. But still, the strong performances from the leads keep us engrossed.
The stand-out is Tharout. Despite the occasional fireworks of an emotional outburst, there is a welcome nuance in his portrayal of Hashem: the man seems eternally frustrated and yet hopeful that good things are coming his way.
Foaud, a stalwart of the Egyptian entertainment industry, doesn’t have too much to do in the film. His soulful demeanour works in painting Hamad as a tired expatriate who wonders about what is yet to come in his life.
Nawart Masr had the potential to be a better film, but it does a good job in shedding light on society in Cairo today, and is hopefully the beginning of an interesting new chapter for Egyptian film.