ND/NF REVIEW: Meandering "Medina" Offers Beautiful Moments
by Andrea Meyer
(indieWIRE/3.28.2000) -- Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah's "El Medina" is an energetic, intriguing, and beautifully shot film. It's also all over the place. Three screenwriters -- including the talented French filmmaker Claire Denis whose forte has never been clarity -- contributed to the script, and it shows. It feels as if Denis, Nasrallah, and co-writer Nasser Abdel-Rahmane brainstormed a basic story line, went off separately to write a bunch of scenes (some of them very beautiful), and then threw them all together and said, "voila -- a movie!"
The story goes something like this: Ali's a good-looking business school graduate who works in the bustling Cairo marketplace. His dad wants him to go to Saudi Arabia to make his fortune, but Ali has other plans -- he wants to be an actor. This singular passion drives Ali to break with his family and run off to Paris where he joins the mass of struggling illegal Arab immigrants. Blessed with an unusually pretty face and body, Ali rises above the exploited hordes to become a fighter in rigged boxing matches. This world becomes as exploitative as the factories and flophouses his pals inhabit, and eventually he winds up wandering the Paris streets with amnesia, no passport or shoes, until he gets shipped back to Cairo.
In between there's lots of humor and poignancy about the plight of the Arab abroad, the plight of the poor Egyptian in modern Cairo, and the plight of the cute young actor whose father refuses to understand him. There are also a couple of love interests, including beautiful Portuguese actress Inês de Medeiros and a closeted best friend, and lots of silliness in the marketplace with his friends. Throw in a hooker, a sympathetic mom with a sentimental knick-knack, some pet ducks, and a French guy (renowned actor Roschdy Zem) who thinks Ali might be an Egyptian prince.
While this film desperately cries out for more editing, there is a lot to recommend in it. For one, the young actor who plays Ali, Bassem Samra, is incredibly hot. He looks like a younger, Egyptian Laurence Fishburne, and he plays this driven albeit lost soul with an appealing combination of determination, sexuality and innocence. During the early scenes in Egypt, Ali is all confidence and laughter. Even when his father disowns him for his disobedience, he retains a self-assured optimism. He earns our compassion early on, so when he's thrown into less friendly waters in France, we root for this floundering babe as he struggles to swim. Ali is the hook that keeps us attached even when the film meanders through two too many plot twists.
Also inviting is the window that Nasrallah provides into two disparate worlds -- the working class neighborhoods of Cairo and the hellhole where illegal aliens in Paris abide. In Cairo, Ali and his friends smoke from a hookah pipe and sing in the narrow streets with swarms of people clapping along. They float on inner tubes drunk and stoned in the polluted harbor, cracking up at each other's expense like recent college grads from LA or Milwaukee. An engagement party lets us witness the rituals and hear the songs that these people have been singing all their lives.
Then in Paris, it's thirty would-be French citizens packed into one dingy room, drinking beer and telling Arab jokes while waiting to be carted off to their next illegal workplace. Nasrallah's depiction of the seedier side of Paris seems shockingly real, even if it belongs in another movie. This one tries to accomplish too much in too little time. After the first hour, you start wondering where exactly we're headed. Fortunately, there's a trick ending that cleverly throws a veil of ambiguity over the entire story, justifying some of its rambling and squalor, and finishing on a satisfying note.
[Andrea Meyer is a freelance writer and regular contributor to indieWIRE.]