Saturday, October 10, 2009

NYFF 2009: Chadi Abdel Salam's Al Mummia

Now I know that when it comes to cinema there is more (much much more) that I have NOT seen than I have.  Glaring omissions in my film history knowledge.  Filmmakers such as De Sica (Bicycle Thief, one of my favourite films, aside), early Ozu and Douglas Sirk immediately come to mind.  So much to see and only a finite space to do so, but I am trying my damnest to catch up.  There are those filmmakers I know a lot about - Godard, Fellini, Nick Ray, Chaplin - and others I could write a book on - like my upcoming book on the cinema of William Wellman (would be publishers please take note) - but still the inevitable gaps are still there.  Recently discovering Dorothy Arzner and Glauber Rocha, and about to go round the bend on Guru Dutt, I am filling these gaps nicely.

Yet even knowing my shortcomings, and knowing there are films I must still see and study, sometimes, and quite unexpectedly, comes along a film discovery that blows one's proverbial mind.  A couple years ago it was Charles Burnett's sublime neorealist urban tragedy Killer of Sheep.  Today it is Chadi Abdel Salam's Al Mummia (The Night of Counting the Years, aka The Mummy).   The film, made in 1969, is considered one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made.  Another notable gap in my personal film history knowledge is Egyptian Cinema by the way.  The film was recently beautifully restored by the Cineteca di Bologna in conjunction with Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation, and made its (re)debut at this year's Cannes Film Festival.  Richard Pena's praising piece in Film Comment over the Summer made it an almost sure thing that it would put in an appearance at this year's NYFF - and here it is, in all its glory.

Telling the story of a tribe living in the shadow of Egypt's past and the waning days of antiquity the film is a marvel to experience.  The movie follows two brothers, members of the Hurabat tribe and would be heirs to the tribe's throne.  After their father's death they find out that the tribe has been surviving by secretly selling antiquities from desecrated Pharaonic tombs. This arrogant piracy by the elders of the tribe shames the brothers, and they refuse to take part, putting their lives in dire jeopardy from the elders of the tribe.  

Filmed primarily at either dawn or dusk, Salam's film takes on an almost ethereal quality.  The photography, with its stunning heightened colouring and muted palette, along with the subtle editing and meandering, yet quickened pace gives the film a visual mythology all its own.  Blending the past with the present (at least the present of the film's 1890's setting), Al Mummia is like an ancient artifact unearthed from its own long buried tomb and given its day in the light only to have its public mystified by its almost unearthly strangeness.

One can only hope that the film will see more light of the day - or dark of the theatre I suppose - when it gets a release later this year or next.  Hope hope hoping.

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