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“A former leper and an orphan set out on a donkey…” might sound like the start of a familiar joke, but it’s also what happens early on in the Egyptian debut feature Yomeddine, which is indeed largely familiar. Recalling about a thousand other titles, with the Lynch films The Elephant Man and The Straight Story definitely near the top of the list, this is a picaresque road movie about two mismatched characters, with rookie director A.B. Shawky offering a motley and not entirely smooth cocktail of drama and melodrama, a dash of social critique and insight, some chuckles and a few tugs at the heartstrings, mainly by virtue of its near-virtuoso score.
While it’s a novelty to see a film with a protagonist played by a non-professional actor who actually still lives in a leper colony, this isn’t enough to make this tonally wobbly road movie feel like it can live up to the expectations that come with a Cannes competition slot. That said, general ticket-buying audiences will likely appreciate the film’s many recognizable genre elements while enjoying its uplifting message that champions the underdogs and marginalized in society.
Shawky, who is half-Egyptian and half-Austrian and who was educated at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, should be commended for returning to his country of birth for his first feature and for the decision to turn his cameras on a subject very rarely explored in cinema: leprosy, about which the director previously made a short. His feature debut also insists on Egyptian society’s misconceptions about the disease, which is not very contagious, though that stigma is what led to the creation of leper colonies in the first place (the misconceptions surrounding leprosy extend way beyond Egyptian society, it should be noted). On top of that, 40-year-old protagonist Beshay (Rady Gamal) has been cured, so the risk of him infecting anyone is actually zero, though his face and especially his hands have been disfigured.
Shawky, who also wrote the screenplay, sends Beshay on a trip to see, after the death of his mentally ill wife, if he can find his family in the south of Egypt; they abandoned him at the colony up North when he was just a child. Apparently well-versed in movie clichés, a plucky 10-year-old nicknamed Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz) hides in Beshay’s donkey cart when he leaves so he can tag along and see something of the world — or at least, Upper Egypt. Obama is a Nubian orphan, so perhaps he’ll be able to find out something about his own family in the process. No points for guessing these unlikeliest of buddies will get into a lot of trouble en route to an ending foretold.
As practically all road movies, Yomeddine is episodic by design. The duo has things stolen several times. Beshay, who’s a Coptic Christian, ends up in jail handcuffed to a devout Muslim, and their donkey gets sick and finally gives up the ghost, robbing them of their means of transportation. Argentinean cinematographer Federico Cesca (Patti Cake$) captures it all in an unfussy style that prefers medium shots that allow a glimpse of the beautiful but often largely indifferent world the characters move in.
At a certain moment, they visit a school previously hit by an earthquake where a local tries to help Obama by looking for a school certificate from someone named Mohammed. The laconic reaction from Beshay — “Half the country’s named Mohammed!” — is good for a chuckle, though clearly there’s also a missed opportunity for a birth-certificate joke in there somewhere.
There are indeed moments that are amusing, some that are melodramatic and some that feel quite realistic, like a kerfuffle aboard a train, though that moment’s near-documentary realism quickly dissipates when Beshay utters a line of dialogue — “I am a human being!” — that’s too didactic by half and doesn’t seem either in character or really called for in that particular moment. There are also a few flashbacks/dream sequences that try to spice up a generally warmly humanistic tone with a few more lyrical moments, though they are too infrequent and brief to really impart any new information or turn the story into something less rooted in Egypt’s fertile, if often garbage-strewn, earth.
Practically all of the moments in which Yomeddine soars emotionally are dictated or greatly aided by U.S. composer Omar Fadel’s glorious and full-bodied score, clearly the MVP of artistic contributions here. Part of the reason the feature needs to rely on that musical crutch is because the tone of the spoken words, like in that moment on the train, isn’t always credible. “You’re not sick, you just have scars that didn’t heal,” Obama tells his companion in one of the film’s other lines that feel much too written to be coming out the mouth of the person saying it. And when another character tells Beshay that “we’ll never be normal, but that doesn’t mean we should live in shame,” it feels less like hard-earned wisdom acquired from years of living on the street, hand-to-mouth, than some generically empowering soundbite inspired by a few too many viewings of old Oprah shows on YouTube.
While all the non-professional actors generally convince as versions of themselves and manage to sell their fictional rapport as something lived-in and true, lines of dialogue such as these risk undermining the characters’ otherwise compelling authenticity.
Production companies: Desert Highway Pictures, Film Clinic
Cast: Rady Gamal, Ahmed Abdelhafiz
Writer-director: A.B. Shawky
Producer: Dina Emam
Executive producers: Elisabeth Shawky-Arneitz, Ahmed Shawky, Ali Baghdadi, Gill Holland, A.B. Shawky, Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Federico Cesca
Production designer: Laura Moss
Editor: Erin Greenwell
Music: Omar Fadel
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Wild Bunch
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