Few Arab films have dared to confront the sinister interplay between government and Islam as boldly as The Preacher (Mawlana). Capturing the dark atmosphere of the times, director Magdi Ahmed Ali brings Ibrahim Issa’s 2012 novel Mawlana/Our Master to the screen with verve, emotion and a welcome dose of humor. Its focused critique of the way politics manipulates religion for its own ends rings painfully true, and its topicality should offer some breakout potential after festival exposure starts it on its way. Its gala premiere in Dubai in an uncut version was a feather in the film festival’s liberal hat.
While its target audience is clearly the Arab world, one imagines the story could stir up a good bit of controversy in the Middle East. The terrorist bombing of a Coptic church and the fire-bombing of a Sufi apartment building by an ultra-conservative mob are two scenes of shocking violence. Even the film’s message of religious tolerance seems daring and gives this clever, straight-talking film a modern edge. The only false note is some awkward plotting at the end of the tale.
Starting as the portrait of a popular TV preacher and gradually morphing into an absorbing thriller, the fast-paced screenplay doesn’t dawdle around. When we first meet young Sheikh Hatem with his teasing eyes and Pepsodent smile, he’s already got a fan club. His electrifying speech at a government mosque (“Authority is a responsibility you’ll be held accountable for on Judgment Day”) leads to a TV show. There he fields simple queries about religion from a hand-picked studio audience who are given the questions in advance.
Hatem, who has a lavish lifestyle, plays ball with the producer and sponsors. He’s given suave eloquence and charm by a charismatic Amr Saad, the actor who got his start in Youssef Chahine’s The Other and Yousry Nasrallah’s El Medina. The audience expects Hatem to be an orthodox fuddy-duddy, but he surprises us. His Quranic knowledge is unimpeachable, along with his reverence for the prophet Muhammad, but he takes a down-to-earth approach to traditional teachings and cuts through the details. His bottom line is that in the end we’ll be judged by our deeds, not what religion we practice.
Modern and tolerant but never wishy-washy, he wiggles out of tough questions like a cunning psychologist. He deprecatingly refers to his work as being “like a lifeguard shouting himself hoarse at swimmers who venture too far out.” In private he speaks out against the persecution of minorities like Christians and Sufis, but not on TV or to the authorities.
As his celebrity grows, so does the government’s interest in his power to sway the masses. The turning point comes when he’s invited to participate in a nighttime soccer game with the president’s sons, including Galal, who needs help handling his rebellious young brother-in-law Hassan. The boy is the heir to a vast gas and oil fortune, and wants to convert to Christianity. Played by Ahmed Magdi as a long-haired hippie whose mind is agog, Hassan seems immune to Hatem’s powers of persuasion. He returns to center stage in an implausible plot twist that adds little to the drama.
But converting Hassan back to Islam is not the only favor required of Hatem if he is to be allowed to remain a TV star. His producer would like dispensation for running a ring of “slave-girls” (one imagines he means prostitutes) and pressures him to preach hatred on camera. He refuses; others do not. After a screaming imam in a wild red beard harangues a crowd against heretics, a mob fire-bombs the home of Hatem’s friend and mentor, the Sufi cleric Sheikh Mokhtar (Ramzi Al Adl), in a terrifying scene.
His private life is not so fortunate. Though he’s deeply attached to his independent wife Omaima (Dorra) and the son they finally had after years of trying, his overprotectiveness puts the boy in danger. In a few swift strokes, his beloved family disintegrates before his eyes. A young theology student (Riham Haggag) maneuvers him into a compromising situation. Finally he himself is threatened by the power-brokers. God really does seem to be testing his faith.
From comic ripostes to tears, from barbed put-downs to servility, Amr Saad brings a wide range of emotions and motives to the preacher. Hatem talks sense and touches hearts, but he also is a master at glib self-justification.
Acting and technical work are impressive throughout, beginning with Ahmad Bhisari’s warm, clear Mediterranean lighting that’s a pleasure to look at. Editor Soulafa Noureddine has a sixth sense for eliminating the superfluous and packing a great deal of narrative into two hours. Adel Hakki’s melodiously melancholy soundtrack incorporates flutes and women quietly singing traditional songs.
Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Arabian Nights Gala)
Production company: iProductions
Cast: Amr Saad, Dorra, Ahmed Magdy, Bayoumi Fouad, Reham Haggag, Ramzi Al Adl
Director: Magdi Ahmed Ali
Screenwriters: Magdi Ahmed Ali, Ibrahim Issa, based on Issa’s novel
Producer: Amgad Sabry
Executive producer: Mohamed Al Adl
Director of photography: Ahmad Bishari
Production designer: Hind Haider
Costume designer: Reem Al Adl
Editor: Soulafa Noureddine
Music: Adel Hakki
World sales: Cedar Art Production – Sabbah Brothers