'EXT. Night' ('Leil Khargi'): Film Review | TIFF 2018

EXT Night Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of TIFF
Slight fare from a talented Egyptian director.

A film director, a hooker and a cab driver spend a wild night in Cairo’s underbelly in Ahmad Abdalla’s wry class comedy.

Ahmad Abdalla’s stark vision of the violence sweeping over Egypt from all quarters made his 2013 feature Rags & Tatters one of the most poignantly expressive films to come out of the revolution. Five years later, EXT. Night (Leil Khargi), which bowed in Toronto like the director's Heliopolis and Microphone, is several notches below the artistic bar he raised so high. This story about classism and misogyny is shot as a piquant comedy which follows three characters through Cairo’s backstreets on a wild night on the town. It doesn't, however, stumble on much that is not already known about class and gender discrimination.

There is also a danger that some viewers will see the film as condoning rather than criticizing the men who make disparaging comments about the prostitute Toutou (wonderfully played by Egyptian-Austrian actress Mona Hala). Certainly Abdalla means to promote her life force and unproblematic sexuality over the darkly disapproving Muslim cab driver Mustafa and the smutty-minded hero Moe (Karim Kassem), who eyes her as an easy bed partner.

But social issues apart, the pic feels like a local comedy that isn't hilariously funny to non-Arab speakers. Structurally, its nocturnal runabout incorporates some of the absurdity and paranoia of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, though without any great build-up of pressure. It opens deceptively enough on a film set fallen into chaos, no doubt a metaphor for Egyptian society. Moe, the frazzled director, is going through multiple crises simultaneously. His novelist friend has just been sentenced to jail for writing in “profound language” and his girlfriend has dumped him. The set is a battleground of missing crew members and his costumed star is left dangling in the air from a rope. It’s a strange mix of drama and comedy that leaves the viewer puzzled about how to respond.

This scenario quickly mutates into a frustrating ride through Cairo traffic. Neither burned-out Moe nor his chatty, overexcited driver Mustafa (Sherief El Desouky) has the patience to face the smoggy crawl and they turn off at Mustafa’s nephew’s place, where the driver has earlier parked a drunken, passed-out lady of the night to sleep it off. When they arrive, she is very much awake and furiously demanding her wallet back.

One of the first signs that Moe is not a model of upright behavior is when he finds and hides the wallet, without returning it to its owner. One wonders what he has up his sleeve. Though Toutou is every inch a fighting lady — and a large one, at that — she is soon put at a disadvantage by the two men, who insist on giving her a lift and buying her dinner amid a lot of suggestive jokes and harassment.

They proceed to a popular restaurant serving fried tongue and calf legs; in the midst of a friendly meal, Mustafa suddenly slaps Toutou for talking out of turn, thus establishing his higher status over her. Both of them fantasize about the middle-class life Moe must lead, drinking single malt whisky and smoking the best Afghani hash. (Drugs are shown as plentiful for the lower class, too, but not as good.)

Though Moe is the protagonist, Kassem’s cool guy routine and flippant sense of superiority toward his companions, particularly after they get arrested and are languishing in jail, make him an ambivalent hero. El Desouky brings natural exuberance to the role of sexophobe misogynist Mustafa and often seems to be talking the talk of the common Muslim man on the street.

But it’s the green-eyed beauty Toutou who carries the day with her big Mamma Roma heart and devastating put-downs. Hala is a joyous, witty actress one would like to see more of in leading roles. She has appeared in the Canadian film Cairo Time (not to be confused with Amir Ramses’ 2014 Egyptian film of the same title, in which Kassem was featured.)

EXT. Night does have its moments of good humor and camaraderie, like when Moe and Toutou join a passing wedding on a bridge, or the surprise of finding out that Toutou has a perfectly normal sister she lives with in the ghetto. The action is shot against rich backdrops of the noisy, chaotic city with modern political murals painted on the ancient walls, where one can feel post-revolutionary society settling back into stereotyped class roles.

Handling the cinematography himself, Abdalla packs a lot of atmosphere into each scene, using bright, saturated colors often accompanied by ethnic music.

Production companies: Hassala Films
Cast: Karim Kassem, Mona Hala, Serief El Desouky, Ahmad Magdy, Aly Kassem, Ahmed Malek, Amr Abed, Basma, Magdy Ahmed Aly, Donia Maher, Sabry Abdel Moniem 
Director-director of photography: Ahmad Abdalla
Screenwriter: Sherif Alfy
Producers: Hala Lotfy, Karim Kassem, Ahmad Abdalla
Executive producer: Ahmed Gaber
Production designer: Asem Ali
Costume designer: Reem El Adl
Editor: Sara Abdalla
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
World sales: Film Clinic

98 minutes