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CANNES REVIEW: ‘After the Battle’ Brings an Activist Romance to Tahrir Square

CANNES REVIEW: 'After the Battle' Brings an Activist Romance to Tahrir Square

Now that a number of documentaries have dealt with the 2011 Egyptian uprising at Cairo’s Tahrir Square — most prominently, the scrappy “1/2 Revolution” and broadly focused “Tahrir” — it comes as no surprise that the events have been applied to a fictional scenario, and by no less than a prominent Egyptian filmmaker, Yousry Nasrallah (“Gate of Sun”). Ably using the turmoil at Tahrir as his backdrop, Nasrallah’s “After the Battle” follows a burgeoning, ill-fated romance between two characters uniquely impacted by social upheaval.

The director’s use of existing events to form the movie’s backbone led one colleague to compare it to Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” which took place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but the precedent applies in theory alone. Despite its admirable intentions, “After the Battle” constantly fights an uphill battle to reach its potential and never quite gets there.

In the intriguing first act, Nasrallah introduces passionate advertising executive Reem (Menna Shalabi), a secular Egyptian woman deeply moved by the uprising and intent on maintaining its momentum. However, her privileged angle on the situation limits her understanding of the stakes among members of Egypt’s lower classes. That perspective evolves when she encounters the downtrodden Mahmoud (Nahed El Sebai), a talented horse rider involuntarily looped into the “Battle of the Camel,” a February attack on protestors in Tahrir Square that had bloody results memorialized by YouTube.

Forced out of his job and struggling for new work, Mahmoud instantly captures Reem’s attention when she initially spots him at a horse-dancing event. After a quick hookup in the bushes, Reem learns that Mahmoud’s struggles run deep, also impacting his wife and two young children.

Having established this promising set-up, “After the Battle” promptly goes nowhere in its second act, when the heartfelt Reem fights to improve Mahmoud’s state of affairs as well as those of the other horsemen impacted by the events. The idea that even the apparent attackers have been abused by the Egyptian government certainly holds weight, and Nasrallah’s patient screenplay competently accentuates it. “We’re embarking on a new era of oppression,” Reem says, refusing to celebrate Tahrir Square as anything but a baby step.

Nasrallah’s focus shifts between conspiratorial investigation and the burgeoning romance between Reem and Mahmoud, but never finds the right balance between the two. “Don’t turn a love story into a political affair,” her friend says, and oddly enough it’s the movie that takes that advice. Only in the unlikely kinship Reem develops with Mahmoud’s equally frustrated young wife (Bassem Samra) does “After the Battle” make its clash-of-classes theme connect, but they have minimal scenes together.

Wandering through a series of heated debates, “After the Battle” finally reaches an enthralling representation of community activism with its climactic scene, set at an actual protest — but by then it’s too late to enliven the overall experience. To be fair, Nasrallah faces a tough proposition from the outset, when one considers the challenge of developing any kind of cogent story around the impact of the Egyptian uprising (or the Arab Spring at large), as it remains in the midst of great change but has yet to prove that true change has in fact taken place. That sense of ambiguity is exactly why “1/2 Revolution” and “Tahrir” contained such stunning immediacy and “After the Battle” fails to make the drama stick: Nasrallah never brings the same intensity to the fiery topic that its heroine regards with such extreme convictions.

Criticwire grade: B-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Despite the topical hook, the movie is unlikely generate much of a commercial audience, although Middle Eastern and activist film festivals should welcome it.

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