My Mother, The Car
Yousry Nasrallah is the cinema's most remote of unknown pleasures. Years before he lobbed a grenade at film festivals worldwide with his four-and-a-half-hour pro-Palestinian fever-dream The Gate of the Sun, Nasrallah burned the incense of 1,001 Rushdian Nights with Mercedes (which he'll introduce Thursday at the Walker to kick off the U of M's "Cinema and Society in the Arab World" series). The Egyptian-born director's films reveal a profound kinship to magical realist tradition. And in all of Mercedes' expressions--the elaborate anecdotes, colorful allusions, and crazy asides (in one scene, a child screams, "I hate weddings! I hate them!" while madly playing with his fly)--is the feeling of a literate prankster wildly goosing a stuffed-shirt culture.
In a great Mauritz Stiller film, Sir Arne's Treasure, an old woman envisions a group of men sharpening their knives--the same men that will later kill her and her family. Mercedes is a more modern invention, but its vision of history--past and present, thrown apart by crisis--has a similarly lyrical quality. Before Warda (Youssra) gives birth to her first child, whom she conceives not with her older, light-skinned husband, but with an African American politician, her mother pours milk on her head so as to prevent the child from coming out dark-skinned. This form of colorfully detailed storytelling--rooted deeply, absurdly, but reverentially in the traditions and superstitions of a modern Egyptian culture--reveals Nasrallah's kinship to the deep-throated, mythmaking dramas of Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Emir Kusturica.
The story's wondrously spastic maze of comic sketches is overrun with Muslim fundamentalists, tramps, agents, gays, internationally hopping politicians, and drug dealers; finding a way out of this mess becomes, for Warda's blond-haired son Noubi (Zaki Abdel Wahab), a test of his will and spirit. (For the audience, a printed family tree might be necessary to remember how everyone fits together.) At a party, Noubi agrees to destroy Raifa (Menha Bataoui), the drug-pushing wife of his uncle. Noubi nonchalantly hatches the plan by sending a piece of steak to the meat-phobic woman's table, around which a fit of hysteria explodes. Nothing, though, seems to go according to plan: Noubi's uncle dies (Raifa, naturally, is allergic to his body), but not before he asks his nephew to seek out Camal (Magdi Kamel), who is really Noubi's brother and who may or may not want to claim his inheritance if he believes Raifa will pump him full of heroin.
In Mercedes, Nasrallah takes the pulse of his nation in sharp, concentrated doses. A man who suffers a traffic jam screams, "Damned country! Nothing moves!"--a counterpoint to what Noubi does, which is to move so fast that no one can seem to catch him. A note on the title: It's a reference to the car, which divides, at least according to one of the film's bourgies, the country's people into two categories--those who own one and those who dream of owning one. Noubi, nonconformist that he is, casually blows the man's theory: He refuses reduction, which is the theme of this very smart, progressive film. (A highlight has two women giggling and gawking at Noubi's morning wood.) But Mercedes is also the name of the Spanish woman who holds the key to Camal's location. Upon learning this secret, Noubi gives a moor's last sigh before traveling to Giza to look for his brother, only to stumble first upon a woman, Afifa (also played by Youssra), who looks like his mother and says that she is a "Wednesday Child" (a relative, perhaps, of Rushdie's midnight children?).
The director flings his humanist net far and wide, revealing parts of his culture rarely seen on film. Egypt is notoriously homophobic, so it's surprising to see the country's gay culture depicted on film with such vibrancy and affection--another thread in a nation's busy way of life. Just as queer and fantastic is how the film begins in black-and-white and explodes into color with the news of the Berlin Wall tumbling to the ground. Nasrallah is prone to rocking patches of fluidly interlocked scenes with an explosion of some kind: Afifa crying "rape" in order to escape a trick's grip, a car accident that kills Camal's lover, Raifa's absurd allergic reactions. What these flash points do is send the film's story spiraling in tangential directions so that Mercedes comes to resemble a dense network of veins, flooded with blood and punctured intermittently by sprocket-like pressure points. Nasrallah conveys this idea of an oft-pinched body politic with an effortless style that suggests Fassbinder's camera sliding back and forth across rooms on rusted dolly tracks. Which is to say that Nasrallah's mad, mad, mad, mad world is as giddy as it is hardcore.
For more information about "Cinema And Society In The Arab World," which continues through Sunday, March 26 with screenings and panel discussions, visit www.hishambizri.com/arabfilmconf.html.
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