Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 1, 2017

Sins of the Flesh

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Is the appearance of distinguished Egyptian film noirs set during the Tahrir Square occupation but made only after the revolution’s collapse an anomaly? When you consider the origins of the genre in Hollywood, maybe not so much. A number of such films had heavy CP/leftist participation and reflected a mood of disillusionment over the failure of WWII to bring genuine peace. The Cold War was just beginning and Reds in the movie industry were apprehensive about the future. Given the trajectory of the Sisi regime, one can understand a similar mood overtaking the Egyptian intelligentsia, including its filmmakers.

Only four months ago, I reviewed “The Nile Hotel Incident” that was so immersed in the noir sensibility that I compared its hard-boiled detective lead character to his Hollywood forerunners:

With his basset hound features, Fares will remind you instantly of Victor Mature or Robert Mitchum, two film noir icons who often played the same kind of role: a tarnished, world-weary detective walking a tightrope between the needs of honest citizens who have been wronged and the powerful elements of Egyptian society who use the state to protect their interests—including the cops.

This is a cop who starts off being just as venal as everybody else in the state apparatus but becomes transformed during a murder investigation that pits him against a top player in the Egyptian bourgeoisie. The film climaxes with Fares getting caught up in the Tahrir Square occupation. It can now be seen on Vudu and Amazon and well worth the $4.99 rental fee.

Directed by Khaled El Hagar, “Sins of the Flesh” is a dark and steamy love triangle as the title implies and a kissing cousin of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. In that 1946 film, the ruggedly handsome CP’er John Garfield played a derelict who ended up working at a diner and falling in love with the wife of the older, genial and plump owner named Nick who the two decide to kill. That is the skeleton of the plot of “Sins of the Flesh” but one with much different muscle and flesh enclosing it.

As the film begins, we see a young man named Ali (Ahmed Abdala Mahomud) running as fast as his feet can carry him on a country road late at night. He and all the other prisoners have just been freed from prison by a truckload of anti-Mubarak rebels. It is March 2011 and the Arab Spring is on.

The breathless Ali finally reaches the farm where his cousin Hassan and his wife Fatma live and work. He begs his cousin, the counterpart of Nick, to let him stay on the farm and work alongside him. If he is caught as an escapee, he will be thrown back into prison or worse. Hassan reluctantly agrees to shelter him despite his and his wife’s worries that he will only bring them trouble as has always been the case.

That night as Hassan goes about setting him up in a spare room in their humble quarters that lack electricity and other modern conveniences, Ali takes the young and beautiful Fatma in his arms and kisses her passionately. Despite her very real commitment to her older and plain-looking husband, she cannot forget that Ali was her first love even though she’d rather have forgotten him after he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing a local man who kept forcing himself on her.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the film as being more about a rectangle love affair than a triangle since there is one more side, an old man named Mourad who owns the farm and lords over the three in the same way that the rural landlords have ruled since feudalism. Hassan, Ali, and Fatma grovel before Mourad and call him “master” while he treats them with total contempt.

Mourad has other properties and lives in opulence not far from the farm where he visits occasionally to bark orders at Hassan and Ali. Fatma is treated differently because he lusts after her but is not sure how to find the opportunity to do a Harvey Weinstein on her. That day arrives when he spots Ali and Fatma making love from afar. He makes a mental note of that incident and only decides to exploit it after Hassan supposedly dies of a heart attack from an overdose of Viagra that Mourad has provided him. Cornering the submissive Fatma, he browbeats her into confessing that she and Ali suffocated him to death. Unless she submits to him, he will send the cops after Ali.

Mourad does not only dominate his farm laborers. He locks his college-age son and daughter so that they will be prevented from joining the Tahrir Square protests. At the dinner table, he warns them that the revolution will end badly. The more we see of Mourad, the more we realize why the Egyptian bourgeoisie stood behind Mubarak for so long, and General Sisi afterward.

The director’s statement in the film notes are worth quoting in toto:

Four characters live on a remote farm, away from the actual crises, and no actual realtime images of the revolution are shown. However, the events taking place at the farm reflect what is happening in the country.

The main character, Fatma, represents the struggle of Egyptians. She is torn between tradition, represented by her husband Hassan, the guardian of the farm, a need for rebellion and renewal represented by her lover Ali, Hassan’s cousin, who escaped from prison, and the corruption and greed of the rich elite, symbolised by the owner of the farm, Mourad.

The whole film was shot in one location, a farm in the desert and we used only natural lights like fire and lamps, no electricity. The film went through a rough time with Egyptian censorship for its political theme and was only allowed to be shown to audience 18 years and older. Since the film came out in Egypt last month, it has created huge outrage from some critiques and some audiences but also created lots of debates in Egyptian television and media regarding the rights of freedom of expression for artists, writers, film makers, etc… Five years after the Egyptian revolution, and these debates are still going on….

“Sins of the Flesh” opened today at the Cinema Village and is worth seeing both as a thrilling film noir as well as a study of class relations in Egypt. It is being distributed by ArtMattan, the same people who have been organizing African Diaspora Film Festivals in New York for about as long as I have been writing film reviews.

The 2017 film festival began on November 24th and is scheduled to continue until December 10th. I invite you to check out the schedule here that includes films like “Sins of the Flesh” as well as some other excellent works I have reviewed in the past, including “Gurumbe”, a film about Afro-Andalusian culture, as well as “Mama Africa”, a documentary about Miriam Makeba. Both are outstanding and representative of the sort of films that the good people at ArtMattan make available to New Yorkers in the know.



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