Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

A fascinating modern take on the "A Thousand and One Nights," "Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story" is a powerful indictment of misogyny that overturns stereotypes about Egypt through the dramatic stories women recount on a television show. The film, which has been running for the last eight months in Egypt, marks the happy meeting between Egypt's premier auteur director Yousry Nasrallah ("The Aquarium") and popular screenwriter Waheed Hamed ("Terrorism and Kebab," "The Yacoubian Building.") Though still a stretch for Western viewers, its bold directness and modern look should help bridge the culture gap and make it one of the most accessible Mideast films this year.

Hebba (played by the star Mona Zakki, previously known for her conservative, clean-cut image) hosts a high-rated TV show about current issues. The government is scandalized by a show that insists terrorism is caused by unemployment, poverty and corruption. Hebba's hot new husband, Karim (Hassan El Raddad), is deputy editor of a daily paper; as a condition to becoming editor-in-chief, he is told to get his wife to cool down her "depraved" show that "trashes Egypt's reputation." When Hebba agrees to switch to stories about oppressed women, however, things get even hotter.

It's the familiar complaint of government controlling broadcasters for political ends, and Western viewers actually may marvel at how much it is possible to say on Egyptian TV. Her stories include a beautiful woman (Sawsan Badr) pushing 60 and still single who insists that virginity has been her personal choice, for want of a loving partner. Badr turns this intricate character into a modern icon.

In another story, an attractive middle-class dentist Nahed (Sanaa Akroud) is courted by a man who appears to be a respectable economist, but once he gets her pregnant, his underlying motives emerge.

The most Scheherazade-like tale is told by Safaa (Rihab El Gamal), an ex-con who modestly wears the veil. Many years ago, when her father died, she and her unmarried two sisters inherited his hardware store and entrusted it to the industrious young Said (Mohamed Ramadan.) All three women project their sexual fantasies onto him, leading to a tragic game of love.

This is bold, direct talk to which Egyptian audiences have responded strongly. The only false note in the film is a graphic abortion scene that seems thrown in for shock value, where shock is not needed.

D.P. Samir Bahsan captures sprawling, smog-ridden Cairo in eye-catching bright colors, while expert editor Mona Rabi ably intertwines the women's tales in an engrossing whole that stretches beyond two hours.

Venue: Venice Film Festival -- Out of Competition

Production company: Misr
Cast: Mona Zaki, Mahmoud Hemeida, Hassan El Raddad, Sawsan Badr, Rihab El Gamal, Nesrine Amin, Nahed El Sebai, Mohamed Ramadan, Sanaa Akroud, Hussein El Imam
Director: Yousry Nasrallah
Screenwriter: Waheed Hamed
Producer: Kamel Abou Ali
Director of photography: Samir Bahsan
Production designer: Mohamed Atteya
Music: Tamer Karawan
Costumes: Dina Nadeem
Editor: Mona Rabi
Sales Agent: Pyramide International, Paris
132 minutes