The Yacoubian Building (2006)

Genres - Comedy Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Slice of Life  |   Run Time - 165 min.  |   Countries - Egypt   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Set in and around a crumbling Art Deco Cairo hotel, this epic soap opera from director Marwan Hamed does a decent job of capturing the modern Egyptian experience through its large cast of representative characters who live there. The storylines, D.W. Griffith-style morality tales, concern proprietary relationships based on money, sex, and Islamic extremism. The film is notable for its tackling of taboo subject matter like homosexuality, feminism, institutional corruption, and patriarchal chauvinism, and is most successful illuminating the crooked politics and religious hypocrisy that have undermined the country. This generated quite a bit of controversy in Egypt, where films are routinely censored, and in the conservative communities of the Arab world. But the popularity of its source material (a novel of the same name by Alaa Al Aswani) and curiosity over the most expensive Egyptian film ever made (with a budget reportedly between three and six million dollars) gained the film an audience, breaking box-office records throughout the Middle East. In scale, and with a tendency to evoke grand emotion with swooping crane shots, the film certainly doesn't disappoint. The director's father, screenwriter Wahid Hamed, tackles the thorny subject matter by making the characters as broad and sentimentally appealing as possible. When the actors are skilled enough to give their characters a complex mien, as with Nour El Sherif and Mohamed Imam, the results are pleasingly melodramatic. But for a soap opera to work you've got be so invested in the characters that you'll buy any cornball travesty that befalls them, and many of the characters are too paper-thin to garner sympathy. Most problematic is the male lead: aging Westernized Zaki Pasha (Adel Imam), who feels his home country has lost its dignity and is falling apart. However, Zaki, depicted as perpetually put-upon and the last of a dying breed of masculine idealism, is a letch and many of his actions are despicable. The film's closing moments imply that Egypt's best hope lies in a return to Zaki's idealized European colonialist past. This is a curious conclusion to an otherwise well-rounded and open-minded exploration of a turbulent society searching for stability.