A Citizen, A Detective & A Thief: Comic Relief in Egyptian Cinema

Up to this film I was prepared to believe Egyptian movies only dealt with serious matters in serious ways.  Adrift on the Nile, and The Curlew’s Cry, both in stark black and white, look at small groups of people and how they treat one another, some tenderly, some horrifically.  Both are undergirded by the question of sexual morality, freedom, class, the treatment of women by men.  As the credits roll, one reflects and thinks, but does not laugh.

That has changed with A Citizen, A Detective & A Thief, a 2001 madcap tale of these three fellows, and of course, the women in their lives — in the central case, the one woman in two lives.   It’s hard to slot this film in any well known space of western cinema.  By turns droll, silly, sad, and brutal, with long musical numbers thrown in, from a prison mess hall to a hip-and-belly churning wedding it too deals with class relations, corruption, the relations between the sexes and the social lubrication in a garrulous culture of “arrangement.”   There’s a lot to like in it, and a few things that could have used some editing.  Though, as the main story comes to a culmination and the director, Daoud Abdel Sayed, keeps going with an enormous long tail of more scenes to show several generations following the main characters, we continue to be tickled, even if only for the comic effect of speeding through so many important events.

The crux of the story is that The Citizen, a well education, monied and handsome young man, Selim [Khaled Abol Naga,] is in the throes of writing his first novel.  An old family friend, Fathi, The Detective, wonderfully played by Salah Abdallah, who arrives to help track down The Citizen’s stolen car, persuades him he needs a housemaid, being a bachelor and all.  The very tempting Hayat, [Hend Sabri] arrives.  Not only is she good looking, she is bright and tough, more than a match for the educated Selim.  She is also the girlfriend of The Thief, [Shabaan Abdel Rehim] who is in prison as the movie begins.  Rehim is, in real life, a popular singer and  he puts this to good use in the movie,  often singing a kind of Egyptian “corrido,” telling of the events of the day or week, how he feels and wants others to look on him, or what they are going through — a day in prison, for example.

Selim, though he has an upper class girlfriend is, naturally, attracted to Hayat and they find themsleves beneath the sheets — with a bit of his bare chest and her bare arms showing.  She has not yet been forthcoming about her other friend, and Selim is still blissfully unaware.  When she steals a few of his things, including the novel, the story gets really silly and rich.  It turns out that the Thief is extremely well read and fancies himself the literary critic.  In his opinion, Selim’s novel would be more useful keeping them warm. Into the fire it goes.  In the fight that follows, the Thief loses and eye, which being a singer, he sings about to help him through the pain….

Honest, it’s a funny movie to watch — except for a couple of more than slap-stick beatings administered to Hayat.  Upper class boy marries lower class girl; upper class girl is very content with the Thief – though they all regress to their original loves from time to time, with no hurt feelings, natch.  The constant  Thanks to God, It’s all in His hands, the praise heaped on each other, even trouble is intended,  and the wonderful hand gestures as arguments are advanced add to the enjoyment as we watch folks not too different from us act in ways that are different enough to set us up for some very engaged viewing.