It has taken decades for the template pioneered by Robert Altman's 1975 Nashville to become fashionable in cinema. This format, with its criss-crossing characters and interweaving narrative strands, has underpinned numerous films such as Magnolia, Traffic, Crash and Syriana; the Mexican writer-director team of Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu, who made last year's Babel, has yet to produce a film that doesn't juggle multiple plot-lines and protagonists. I think that the new genre is a response to our burgeoning awareness of how closely connected we all are, and how every action has its consequence. But among these sprawling would-be epics with one-word titles, no one has yet said the unsayable and produced a film called Soap Opera. After all, the risk of making films of this nature is that one person's multi-character ensemble drama is another person's Eldorado.
Alaa al-Aswany's 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building, about the latter-day residents of a once-majestic Cairo apartment block, embraced that soapiness, mixing trenchant insights into the nature of community and extremism with scandalous episodes straight out of daytime television. The book is like a running buffet from which the reader can take little nibbles, but it amounts to quite a feast. I don't envy the 29-year-old director, Marwan Hamed, or his screenwriter father, Wahid, who have taken on the gargantuan task of bringing it to the screen. But, like the building at the story's centre, the film is something to behold despite its imperfections.
The ageing playboy Zaki (Adel Imam) pines for the days before the 1952 coup, when the Yacoubian, and the country, were full of wealthy foreigners. He is given in his dotage to offering fetching young women an afternoon's pleasure at his office. "Where will we sleep?" asks one catch. The music swells melodramatically as Zaki pulls open the sliding doors to reveal a bed. "In the conference room," he purrs. Then there is young Taha (Mohamed Imam), who drifts toward Muslim extremism after his application to join the police academy is refused due to his father's lowly status. His reluctant girlfriend, Bothayna (Hind Sabry), realises that to stay in employment she must allow herself to be manhandled by the boss, but then finds contentment in an unexpected place. The newspaper editor Hatem (Khaled el-Sawy) falls for a soldier, and installs the man and his family in one of the Yacoubian's rooftop rooms so he can be within his grasp. And the businessman Haj Azzam (Nour el-Sherif) buys himself an election victory and a second wife, only to have both transactions turn sour.
Marwan Hamed directs like Pedro Almodóvar's kid brother, marshalling the busy plot with a steady hand and piling on the kitsch and colour so that a garish blouse or a tacky boudoir can prompt a guffaw. His camera glides through the clammy offices and bustling streets as though in imitation of the gently rolling rhythms of al-Aswany's prose. The themes of the book are handled with clarity, too; you get a proper sense of how the characters' aspirations are impeded by their social standing and by their country's blighted history ("Who hasn't got a bad reputation in Egypt?" asks Bothayna). Taha's transformation from conscientious student to terrorist is chillingly plausible, even if the scenes at the terrorist training camp have an odd flavour: all that target practice, abseiling and leaping through flames make it look like a jolly day out at a bargain price - the price being martyrdom.
Hamed Sr has been fairly even-handed in his pruning of the book's strands. Only the uncharitable new ending to Hatem's story, and the slapdash treatment of Taha's romance with Bothayna, fail seriously to reflect the novel's compassionate tone. But the best thing about The Yacoubian Building is that it doesn't go in for the highfalutin pomposity of Syriana or Babel. A director in charge of so many characters and storylines can easily develop a God complex, but Marwan Hamed's earthy film marks him out as a man of the people. He is, as the kids would say, keeping it real. Respect.
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