Tribeca Review: The Virgin, The Copts and Me

Md Rezwan Al Islam; Oweda Films
Bottom Line: Self-indulgent quasi-doc fumbles subject involving Christian/Muslim relations in Egypt

Namir Abdel Messeeh's documentary begins with an intriguing premise, but fails to yield a coherent theme.

NEW YORK — A would-be investigation into religious phenomena that persists long after it's clear the project won't yield fruit, Namir Abdel Messeeh's The Virgin, The Copts and Me will impress some viewers with its persistence but ultimately offers little beyond that.

A Frenchman born to Egyptian immigrants, Messeeh originally intends to shoot a documentary about sightings of the Virgin Mary in Egypt, where the Coptics continue to practice Christianity despite facing discrimination from the Muslim majority. Curiously, these apparitions are seen not only by the Copts but by Muslims, who Messeeh reports dislike Christians but respect the Virgin.

This odd bit of sociology looks like a good hook for an exploration of what most outsiders would call mass delusion, but upon arriving in Egypt Messeeh quickly finds that no Coptic priests will cooperate with the film. Thwarted, he changes course without his financer's knowledge -- traveling into the countryside rather than returning to France, turning the film into a travelogue starring his Egyptian relatives.

Here, the movie's already distracting self-referentialism takes it over. Messeeh feuds with his backers and his mother, then convinces Mom to fly in and be his accountant; he hangs out with cousins (more likeable onscreen than he is) and eventually decides he can justify this diversion in "the boonies" by staging a visit by the Virgin himself.

Glimmers of interesting material appear now and then -- religious and economic facts of life, local attitudes toward women and girls -- and as Messeeh gets locals more involved in his scheme, an atmosphere of friendly confusion at least makes The Virgin more enjoyable. But, even after reportedly reshooting "documentary" scenes to fit his goals, the filmmaker never arrives at a coherent theme or even attitude. He returns to France having had a nice vacation for himself (never noticing that revolution happening miles away) and introduced rural Egyptians to the magic of green-screen photography, but what is he trying to offer us?

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, World Documentary Competition
Production Company: Oweda Films
Director-Producer: Namir Abdel Messeeh
Screenwriters: Namir Abdel Messeeh, Nathalie Najem, Anne Paschetta
Director of photography: Nicolas Duchêne
Editor: Sébastien de Sainte Croix
Sales: Daniella Elstner, Doc & Film International
No rating, 90 minutes