The Nightingale’s Prayer – An Egyptian Movie Classic

The Egyptian classic, titled either The Curlew’s Cry or The Nightingale’s Prayer, depending on the translator, will not be for everyone. But director Henry Barakat was one of the grand old men of Egyptian cinema until his death in 1997. Faten Hamama was the most important leading lady in the Golden Age of cinema of the 1950s, and her co-star Ahmed Mazhar an Egyptian Cary Grant.   The story, based on Taha Hussein’s 1934 novel, The Prayer of the Curlew, of the scoundrel brought to goodness by the sweet, resolute young woman may be one of the favorite themes of literature around the world, second only to young, indomitable warrior stories.  Add to the transformation of the man, the lifting up of the poor girl to the life of wealth and true love and you’ve got  a winner.

In Hussein’s telling, and Barakat’s handling, we have two additional elements, not so common, at least in the European conception.  We first meet the family of three women — mother and two daughters– as they are forced by the mother’s brother to flee their village, after he has killed her husband, for adultery.   The absolute power of the dominant male in the family is understood more as history than as actuality for western audiences.  That it is not only his physical force that sends them out as beggars, but the women’s agreement — at least the mothers– that this must be so.

The two girls find work as maids in the city but soon after the oldest, Hanadi,  is seduced by her employer, the Engineer.  A charming and wealthy young man, he has little idea of the rural values she has come from.  Her uncle appears to remind her.  As with her father, the punishment for such a transgression, and shame, is death.  He is her judge and executioner.  Again, the mother seems to agree with the action.

Hamna, [Hamama] the younger sister,  however, is made of different stuff.   Brought up with traditional values, but now adapting to modernity and the city, she hold her uncle guilty for the killing, and the engineer for the dishonoring.  She arranges to become his maid with the intention of killing him — by poison, or any other means she might come upon.

Naturally, life plays its usual games.  The Engineer wants her.  She resists.  He wants her more.  She wants to kill him, but his declarations seem sincere.  She pours the poison and as he lifts the cup to his lips, seems to stumble and knock it out of his hands.  She is troubled be her feelings.  He is troubled by his.  In conversation with a prostitute girlfriend he begins to realize his true feelings.

When the uncle arrives, hot to avenge another dishonoring, this time of Amna, there is only one course left for  the Engineer – to sacrifice his life for his love.

The film, available from Netflix, [and strongly praised in the comments,] has been restored — of which there are some examples in the extra materials.  Even so it is sometimes very contrasty, and with odd light flares at transitions.  The scenes along the Nile are often too dark to be appreciated. Nevertheless, for international film buffs, or those with a particular interest in Egypt this is a must see film.

From The Arabic Film Blog, here is another review, in praise.   And here is one, which wishes it were something more.

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