Directed by Henry Barakat
Many would argue that the greatest films are the ones that affect us on a personal level. Films that make us reexamine our lives, our relationships with others, and who we are tend to be remembered fondly by audiences. Then there are other films that make us feel an emotion. Comedies make us laugh, so we feel joy. Tragedies make us cry, so we feel sorrow. Horror films make us scream, and we feel terrified. Therein lies the power of the cinema: the ability to affect moods and feelings to such a degree that it brings forth the deepest of our emotions. But there is another emotion that films produce. That feeling is anger. I’m not talking about the hatred that we feel towards a villain or even to bad storytelling. I am referring to a deep-seated disagreement between a film and its viewer that stimulates feelings of anger. I am referring to films like Fahrenheit 9/11. Those who agreed with its politics saw it as a rallying cry for protest against the Bush Administration in the wake of the Iraq War. Those who didn’t agree saw it as a perfect example of liberalism misleading America and distorting the facts. Either way, the film produced very vocal reactions from those who saw it. In some way, Fahrenheit 9/11 stirred the fires of anger in those who saw it.
But there are other films that are not documentaries that can create feelings of anger. Films where great injustices fall upon the hero (Pam’s Labyrinth) or the “hero” committees great injustices (Bergman’s Summer with Monika) are great examples. But really, each film had an agenda in eliciting anger. What about films which are oblivious to the anger that it creates? Is that even possible? Are there films that set out to tell a story but end up telling a completely different one? I think that there is. It is Henry Barakat’s jewel of a film entitled The Nightingale’s Prayer, a film that tries its hardest to be a story about impossible love, but unwittingly becomes one of the greatest portrayals of gender inequality in Islamic society. This film makes me angry. I hate how the women are treated. I hate the things that happen to the women. I hate how the film seems to ignore these things and tries to become a simple melodrama. And that is why I love this film with a passion. There are not many movies that can arouse such emotions within me. As a film, as a story, as a work of art, it is a phenomenal testament of cinematic power. And the best part is that it probably doesn’t even realize that it is so good.
Based on a novel by Taha Hussein, one of the most influential Egyptian writers of the 20th century, it tells the story of Amna, a young woman who lives with her older sister Hanadi and their mother after their father dies. It is hinted that he died in a state of dishonor, so the three women are forced to leave their community. Life is difficult, but they finally manage to get work. Amna works as a maid for a wealthy family and Hanadi works for a local engineer. The work isn’t easy, but they survive. But things change when the engineer seduces Hanadi and then throws her away. In Islamic society, this is a great dishonor. The shame brought on by her actions is so great that their uncle kills her in front of Amna and her mother. When they beg him why he killed her, he brutally hits them and says, “Hanadi died in the plague.” Of course, there is no plague. But the women dutifully obey him. They don’t question why she needed to be killed, but why the engineer seduced him. This is one of the first warning signals to the audience. The women don’t care that their uncle killed Hanadi, but are only concerned for the man who shamed her. A modern day audience would think to itself, “How does that work? Why don’t they attack the uncle or at least turn him in to the police?” But realize, subservience to the men is automatic. They must never question their male superior. And so they turn their attentions to the engineer.
Amna employs herself into the engineer’s household in hopes to poison and kill him. But she finds herself unable to carry out her plan. She is now trapped in the employment of the man who was responsible for her sister’s death. While there she witnesses him casually seducing his other maid. It is clear that he has shamed many unmarried virgins before. Why hasn’t he been arrested? It’s simple really. If a woman is seduced it must be her fault. The engineer is portrayed as a lustful snake. No sooner does Amna begin to work for him than he tries to seduce her. His advances get more and more violent as Amna’s refusal only sparks his desire. In one scene, he begins to rip her clothes off. It is obvious that if Amna hadn’t managed to get away he would have raped her. So what is Amna’s reaction to this evil man?
She falls in love with him.
Let that sink in for a minute. She falls in love with the man who is responsible for her sister’s death and tried to rape her. As a fan of European comedy-of-manners and farces, I can readily accept the idea of people instantly falling in love with people that they should have no business with. But this is ridiculous. She confesses her love for him and reveals her identity. The engineer confesses that he loves her too. But before they can act on their love, Amna’s uncle returns. He is furious that Amna left him. He had arranged for her to marry a man who would pay an outrageous dowry. To him, Amna is only worth her value in gold. The denial of his money sends him on a rampage. He shows up at the engineer’s house with a rifle to kill Amna. But the engineer valiantly shields her with his body, taking the bullet, and dying. Amna’s uncle tries to run, but he is captured. It is obvious that he will be going to jail, now that he has been caught red-handed in the murder of a prominent man. One wonders if they would have apprehended him if he had shot Amna.
Do you understand why I love this movie so much? It tries to be a tender love story, but it reveals so many hidden injustices in Islamic society. The men can kill women if they shame their families. Men can seduce women and not get punished. Whenever the women are confronted with unbearable news, their reaction is, “Allah wills it.” The only proactive character is Amna who tries to seek revenge on her sister’s death. But she can’t even do this properly as she falls in love with the very man that she swore to kill. And yet the story centers around Amna and her romance with the engineer.
Maybe I am overreacting. Somebody once said that it isn’t enough to love movies, but to love them for the right reasons. So let me give you some other reasons why this is a great movie. The acting is incredible, led by a phenomenal performance by Faten Hamama, one of Egypt’s greatest and most influential actresses, as Amna. The cinematography perfectly captures the setting of Egypt. I felt like there was sand in my shirt after I watched it. And while I may not agree with the character’s motivations, the film manages to make all of the characters feel like real people and not just archetypal caricatures. Not many films are capable of doing that.
But the real reason that I love it is because I know that it will inspire so many different feelings from the people who watch it. Some will feel angry, like me, about the unfair treatment of women. Some will be swept up by the romantic melodrama. And yes, some may think that it is slow and boring (although I think that its pacing is fine, thank you very much). I guess the big question is whether or not the movie was aware of its own message. To answer that question, let’s go back to Taha Hussein, the man who wrote the novel that the film was based on. He was extremely influential, but he was always quite the controversial fellow. He was a leader of the Egyptian modernist movement and fought for enlightenment and rationalism. Oh, and also women’s rights. Now let’s look at the director of the film, Henry Barakat. It seems that he was a fairly well-received director. According to his Wikipedia page he was given the Egypt State Incentive Prize in Arts and Letters of the Supreme Council of Culture, 1995. That seems impressive, at least until you realize that according to his page, his greatest achievement seems to be his 1955 hit Days and Nights where he directed the belly-dancer Zeinat Olwi in one of her best performances. Make of that what you will. It will only make the film more interesting to analyze.