Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story
Details: (MA15+), 134 mins, Egypt,
Synopsis: A female talk show host in Cairo stirs up political controversy when she focuses her on-air discussions on the topic of women's issues.
Tough, complex melodrama provides constant surprises.
ARAB FILM FESTIVAL: When this tense, intense and very moving Egyptian drama from director Yousry Nasrallah bowed at the Venice film festival last year portions of the Middle Eastern media ganged up on it. That isn’t surprising, since its plot can be read as nothing less than an essay on the way Egyptian women cannot escape a society that, the film argues, is deeply and dangerously misogynistic. In the film’s intricate and complex narrative, the subordination of women is central to a corrupt society across every level of human experience. Here, marriages are nothing less than scams to make money; media’s role is to support the status quo and let the powerful rule without question. Women, it seems, are there merely to support their man.
Still, read in terms of a pure melodrama the movie is wrenching. The film presents four characters that are determined and independent; they are non-conformists by virtue of the fact that they cling to their romantic desire for something true and deep in a relationship with a man, a union they wish had personal meaning beyond the set standards of culture and religion. But Nasrallah and screenwriter Waheed Hamed don’t provide happy reconciliations and mutually nourishing relationships for their hero-women; here, passionate romantic desire in its purest form leads to madness, murder, public scandal and betrayal.
Central to the action is glamorous muck-raking TV journalist, Hebba (Mona Zakki, a major Middle Eastern star) who runs a chat show that attacks government and corporate chicanery. This puts pressure on her editor husband Karim (Hassan El Raddad) who is seeking promotion in a state-run media outlet. When he suggests that she ought to pursue ‘personal interest women’s stories’ it becomes apparent to all that the personal is political.
The film then dives into the lives of three women, each a guest on Hebba’s show. We see, in flashback, their often terrible and tragic stories.
There is middle-aged Amany (Sawsan Badr), who is, still in her mid-50s, a virgin. She turned down a marriage proposal with a wealthy politician because she did not love him and has ended up institutionalised. Safaa (Rihab El Gamal) is a murderer. Coming from a lower class family of shopkeepers, she has two sisters, and though they inherit their father’s business, it means little. Seen as ‘plain,’ the three sisters don’t feel they are strong prospects for marriage and will end marrying men too old or too interested in their money to be ultimately satisfying. Said (Mohamend Ramadan) is the virile ‘shop help’; the three sisters decide that one of them ought to marry him but when Safaa discovers that Said has been exploiting their vulnerability by sleeping with all three sisters, she is enraged.
Then there is the story of ‘conservative’ Naheed (Sanaa Akroud). A wealthy dentist from a ‘well-bred’ family who values such rituals as a betrothal ceremony, she wishes to hold onto her virginity until after the marriage is formalised. But her suitor, Adham (Mahmoud Hemeida), a well-placed economics analyst who advises the government, is a louse. All he wants is her money and her body, and after he gets both he dumps her and when she protests, he shames her.
Since Nasrallah adopts a rather glossy, heightened visual style and the film’s melodramatic plotting provides constant surprises, his film has been compared to mid-career Almodovar, but that’s an allusion, and a bit misleading. The tone in Scheherazade is harsher, more intense; the mood, much more downbeat. Still, each of the vignettes dealing with the three women have their own distinct feel and tone; Amany’s is dialogue driven social comedy; Saffaa’s has an almost documentary attention to detail in the rituals of day to day life; and Nahed’s story seems a deliberate parody of romantic fiction (her courtship starts off with her cleaning the teeth of her romantic prospect and continues to scenes of horse riding and ends up in a well-appointed, but antiseptic, hotel room for a tryst!)
This is a tough film and a brutal one (there is a very explicit depiction of an abortion – very bloody and graphic). Yet, the film has a fine irony that’s quite liberating. In the end, Hebba, the ‘powerful’ media agent, comes to see the corrupt forces in her own choices.
Incidentally the title derives from the fictional storyteller, Scheherazade, of One Thousand and One Nights.
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