'Certified Mail' ('Bi Elm El Wossul'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
How strong does a woman have to be?

Egyptian star Basma calls on her emotional reserves as a wife and mother fighting depression in Hisham Saqr’s feature debut.

Film editor Hisham Saqr, who has worked with top Egyptian talent like Ahmad Abdalla on Microphone, makes his feature directing debut with Certified Mail (Bi Elm El Wossul), a sensitive, harrowing tale about an emotionally fragile young wife and mother who has to face the trials of Job when her husband is arrested. Basma (Sheikh Jackson, EXT. Night) gets to the heart of a complex role, portraying matter-of-factly the quiet heroics demanded of a woman. This Toronto Discovery entry should have a lively run on the festival circuit and prove a launching pad for Saqr, who wrote, directed and edited the film.

Though it skirts Egyptian melodrama, which is difficult territory for Western audiences, the pic turns out to be a surprisingly realistic woman’s drama that is easy for female audiences in particular to identify with. It also offers a revealing glimpse into the lifestyle of a middle-class Cairo family, whose numerous emotional and family ties aren’t the safety net one would imagine.

Hala (Basma) has a new baby girl, her first child, and can feel secure in the love and attention of her husband Khaled (Mohamed Sarhan), who has a steady job in a bank. He's sympathetic, too, to her frequent bouts of depression, which he calls her “obsessions,” especially after her father’s death. She wakes up at night and tells him about recurring nightmares and suicidal thoughts. Her long, loose hair and makeup-free face, which is frequently frowning, suggest her mental state and suffering, but also the freedom with which she lives.

She’s just not all there. When her friendly neighbor Mona (Passant Shawky) hands her back the child she’s been babysitting, she warns Hala to hold the girl tightly so she doesn’t fall on the stairs. It seems like needed advice.

Then disaster strikes. Khaled makes a whopper of a mistake that costs the bank money and, following its draconian laws, is arrested while being investigated for fraud. Suddenly Hala has no emotional or financial backup and has to go it alone. And the going gets tougher scene by scene. Her carping mother, who still has Hala’s rebellious teenage sister at home, is no help. She has to lean on Mona, but her friend’s cooperation comes at the price of watching over her bedridden father and enabllng her secret marriage to a man the family disapproves of. Her final trial begins when she discovers a series of mysterious letters on her doorstep, apparently meant for her husband.

Basma is a modern actress who can glam down and still remain totally sympathetic, and one never questions Hala’s transformation from the victim of dark thoughts to a fighter who soldiers on through tough times. The only contrived moment is her poetic final plea to a woman who can help her, which rings false in her desperate situation.

As her calm, strong husband caught in the jaws of a grinding bureaucracy, Sarhan is helpless but courageous in the face of legal injustice and constant postponements of court decisions. He shows a refreshing absence of the violence, sexism and bravado that characterize many men in Egyptian films. 

Mostafa Hefzy’s lighting has a cozy retro look, and cellphone use is kept to a minimum. Apart from Hala and Khaled’s modern dress, they could be in the 1950s when they stroll through the crowded, noisy streets of Cairo — perhaps a directorial comment on how little has changed in the city over the decades. Ahmed Salah’s musical score is on the anguishing side, but in the midst of the gray dowdiness of Hala’s suffocating apartment, production designer Hanan Kerolos sets the unexpected cheer of a bright blue sofa under a window, a positive piece of furniture if ever there was one. 

Production companies: Film Clinic, White Feather Film Production, Daydream Art Production
Cast: Basma, Mohamed Sarhan, Passant Shawky, Rafal Khallil, Lobna Asal

Director-screenwriter-editor: Hisham Saqr
Producers: Hisham Saqr, Mohamed Hefzy
Director of photography: Mostafa Sheshtawy
Music: Ahmed Salah
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
World sales: Media Luna

98 minutes