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Shot in luminous high-gloss monochrome, Decor is a stylistically bold mix of self-referential love letter to vintage Arab cinema and bittersweet social commentary on post-revolutionary Egypt. For the first time, director Ahmad Abdalla—renowned for his award-winning verite dramas focused on the Arab Spring and its aftermath, notably Microphone and Rags & Tatters—has not scripted his film. It should attract interest overseas as a timely and sympathetic portrait of a female protagonist, and an entire nation, torn between two imperfect futures. Following its world premiere at the London Film Festival last month, Abdalla’s movie, his fifth, next screens in Singapore in December.
Intense, striking, raven-haired J.Lo look-alike Horeya Farghaly stars as Maha, a film set designer who is working with her hunky husband, Sherif (Khaled Abol Naga), on a soapy commercial feature that both find distasteful. Maha is a modern Arab career woman, pragmatic and childless, every inch the liberated equal of her male colleagues. But as her anxiety about the cash-strapped production and its diva-like female star escalates, Maha suddenly finds herself magically transported inside the fictional universe of the movie she is shooting.
In this parallel narrative, Maha is a young mother with an older, more traditional husband, Mostafa (Maged El Kedwany), and an unsatisfactory job as an art teacher. But on the positive side, her elderly mother is still alive in this alternative story. Initially fearing that her sanity could be compromised and this version of reality may be the concrete one, Maha slowly learns to role-play her new self. Then one day, she suddenly wakes up in her old life again, assailed by fresh anxieties about whether the grass truly is greener on the other side.
Past the midway point, Maha’s flip-flopping between parallel plots becomes more frequent and disorienting. In a witty touch, both Sherif and Mostafa take her to see a psychiatrist, played by the same actor in each universe. The playfully porous script by Sherin Diab and Mohamed Diab keep all possible readings fluid, never falling into the easy trap of endorsing Sherif’s Western lifestyle over Mostafa’s conservative values, or vice versa. Both husbands and both realities have positives and negatives for Maha. To quote one of the more knowing lines, “Life is not black and white.”
Fans of vintage Egyptian cinema will recognize thematic and aesthetic echoes of some homegrown classics from the 1950s and 1960s here, most notably River of Love and The Last Night starring Faten Hamama. Once the Arab world’s most revered movie heroine, Hamama appears throughout Decor in background TV clips, at one point with her former husband and co-star Omar Sharif. But no culturally specific research is required to enjoy this magical-realist conceit, which has equal echoes of classic Bergman, Truffaut and Woody Allen.
Decor is partly a snapshot of one woman at a crucial crossroads, partly a wary appraisal of Egypt’s unfinished revolution and partly a navel-gazing meditation on the eternal tension between creativity and commerce: “art never pays the bills.” Sadly, this sophisticated balancing act wobbles a little in the overlong final act with an arson subplot, a mental breakdown and a pointedly artificial-looking train accident. Abdalla and his writers are clearly highlighting the gulf between subtle drama and B-movie melodrama here, but their message feels muddled and overcooked.
Happily, they pull it back in time for an elegant coda set in a cinema, where the film-within-a-film framework acquires a further meta-textual layer, and cinematographer Tarek Hefny makes a witty split-second shift from luminous monochrome to brash color. Beyond a few minor flaws, Decor is a stylish, smart and original addition to the canon of post-Arab Spring cinema, with a lush score by Khaled Al Kammar that only enhances its ravishing retro luster.
Production company: New Century Productions
Cast: Horeya Farghaly, Khaled Abol Naga, Maged El Kedwany
Director: Ahmad Abdalla
Screenwriters: Sherin Diab, Mohamed Diab
Producer: Zein Kurdi
Cinematographer: Tarek Hefny
Editor: Sara Adballah
Music: Khaled Al Kammar
Production designers: Nihal Farouk, Asem Ali
Sales company: New Century, Cairo
No rating, 114 minutes
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