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.

Women’s Prison — Iran

Quite unlike any women-in-prison movie you might have seen, or contemplated seeing, Manijeh Hekmat’s 2002 Women’s Prison, from Iran offers no fetching blonds disrobing each other in cell block fights, or tough dyke guards leering at  nubile fems.  Far from it. The opening scenes take place in 1984,  in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, and five years after the 1979 Islamic revolution. The female guards are all dressed from head to toe in  black chadors.  The prisoners, except for one, wear scarves but are otherwise dressed in layers of sweaters, jackets, ankle length pants.  They talk tough and foul, fight and smoke.

It’s a  difficult movie to watch with its grainy film stock, severe lighting and not very tight story telling.  Distinguishing between characters with only faces and vocal manerisms to help is sometimes difficult — especially when three key women are played by the same actor.  Some viewers will find themselves lost because of this, and not take in the whole movie.  Too bad. It’s a film and story you are unlikely to see elsewhere — women as they behave in a Muslim run prison as the culture changes around them.

It was ear-opening to hear the crimes some were in for — murder, prostitution– and the toughness displayed, even to a no-nonsense new warden, even with the threat of solitary confinement.  The language used — in subtitles, of course– was appropriate to our notions of prisons, with words like “rabid bitch,”  asshole,’ but leaves us wondering what the Iranian originals really are.  Is “bitch” a curse word there too?  Sexual dominance, and even rape, it seems are not just alive in the prisons of advanced western countries.  A wedding, complete with “birde” and “groom”  costumes, livens up the later part of the film.

As interesting as the traditional prison themes of toughness and rebellion are, the scenes of “domestic” life  — wash day, for example, with women treading on clothing in tubs of water, and hanging them out to dry, the care of children from infants to 8-9 years old — are equally so.

Alissa Simon at Senses of Cinema has a review much better informed about Women’s Prision than I am able to pull together, so I’ll just turn you over to her.

The in-depth research behind Women’s Prison generated one of its most chilling scenes—when the prisoners react to the death sentence passed on drug-addicted prostitute Mahin. Hekmat says soberly,

soon after the Revolution, the red light district in Tehran was totally demolished. Most of the prostitutes were living at that place and many of them were imprisoned, and some executed. The Revolution should have saved these women, but the authorities executed them. Since the executions were held very early in the mornings, we found that prisoners kept vigil through the night, staying awake with the woman who was to be executed.

Although Hekmat has been in the film business for 20 years (as producer, first assistant director and production manager), she faced many problems in making Women’s Prison. “As a first-time director, I had to get a particular permit from the Iranian Society of Film Directors and they denied granting such a permit, although I was qualified for the Society’s conditions.” Eventually, she obtained the permit in the name of her husband Jamshid Ahangarani (the film’s art director)

Senses of Cinema

Not a film for everyone, but those with an interest in women around the world, prison conditions or Mid-East cinema it’s definitely worth the time.