A catastrophic hour

… how far this odd society will go – Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Rania Khallaf, , 25 October – 1 November 2012.

An Hour and Half is the simple title of a new film written by Ahmed Abdallah and directed by Wael Ihsan — my first after a long hiatus, with popcorn in one hand and mineral water in the other. Starring a group of new actors, the film actually features many sons and daughters of celebrated stars: Ahmed Salah Al-Saadani and Karim Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, for two. It also features established stars like Sawsan Badr, Ahmed Bedeir and Karima Mukhtar. The action takes place over an hour and a half, no more: the time it takes the train to get from one governorate to another in Upper Egypt.  

In this sense it is in the tradition of Salah Abu Seif’s Between the Sky and the Ground, Ismail Murad’s The Day we Met and Atef Al-Tayib’s Hot Night. This time however the action is based on the real-life story of a notorious train crash that took place between Al-Ayyat in Giza and Fayoum in 2009, prompting public outrage. In a sense this is the story behind the story, recounting the tragic and depressing circumstances in which the passengers lived.

All the characters represent the unprivileged, underpaid, or unemployed categories in this oddly constructed society: the university graduate who, having no job, resorts to selling cheap romantic novels on board; the aged, now homeless mother (Karima Mukhtar), whose son has left her in the train for other people to take care of; the beautiful widow (Sawsn Badr) who is going with her daughter to Beni Sweif to receive her pension: conflict erupts between mother and daughter when the latter asks her mother to lend her LE10,000 so that she can enroll her two children in a language school. This mother-daughter conflict intersects with a father-son relationship between a tea dispenser (Ahmed Al-Saadani) working on board and his recently orphaned five-year-old son, whom he is trying to persuade to accept the prospect of living with his grandmother in Beni Sweif … //

… With an appropriately sad score by Yasser Abdel-Rahman sustaining it throughout, the action breaks down roughly into two parts: on board, and in Beni Sweif; but they are well interwoven. The train driver, accused of failing to heed the warning signals, is busy insulting his playful daughter in Beni Sweif (who in turn is awaiting her boyfriend with his mother, sister and lawyer on the platform); said boyfriend (Ahmed Al-Fishawy) was arrested for kissing a foreign woman in public. Karim Abdel-Aziz masters his role as a menial worker coming back from Libya after two years of working there, penniless and depressed having been robbed of all his savings. His parents, who sold off a small plot of land to cover his travel to Libya and back, are waiting with high hopes for his arrival at the Beni Sweif station, eager to find out how much money he has made in Libya. The tragedy is that he actually dies of severe stomach trouble before he gets there, as if unable to face his parents.

Despite its gloomy mood and the harsh reality it reveals, the film is not without hilarity: Sawsan Badr’s performance as a pretty widow suffering from loneliness and one member of the rail-stealing gang who breaks down in action are examples of that. The acting in general was very convincing, with the actors showing great spontaneity and flair — no doubt helped by the rhetoric-less script, except for the scene in which Ahmed Bedeir walks along the railway while the rails are being dislodged, praying in a loud miserable voice about his small salary and need to pay the dowry for his daughter’s imminent marriage. The scenography also shows the appalling state of both the third-class carriage and the provincial station — likewise the surrounding villagers’ homes. The climax takes place when the leader of the gang is forced to kill the man whose wife he has been sleeping with, another gang leader. An exchange occurs when the latter, noticing that the rails are missing, says to the former, “Are you crazy? Look what you have done! People are going to die.” And the response is as cold as it is eloquent, “They are dead anyway!”
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