Vet Mexican director Jorge Fons does a superlative job of translation and transformation in “Midaq Alley,” a riveting and well-acted drama based on the novel by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Pic is strong prospect for international export and should do well in urban arthouses.
Borrowing a few pages from Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” Fons and screenwriter Vicente Lenero have restructured Mahfouz’s novel into four episodes with overlapping characters.
The first three “chapters” occur simultaneously, each focusing on a different individual in the same seedy neighborhood during the same time frame. As a result, some events are presented three times, from three points of view. The final “chapter” picks up the stories of the various characters two years later.
Mahfouz’s original was set in 1940s Cairo. Fons’ version takes place in contemporary Mexico City. Even so, pic is surprisingly faithful to the basics of Mahfouz’s narrative, and captures the essences of his vividly drawn characters.
Main characters include Rutilio (Ernesto Gomez Cruz), a gruffly macho tavern owner who develops a taste for handsome young men; Chava (Juan Manuel Bernal), Rutilio’s adult son, who longs for a better life in America; Alma (Salma Hayek), a strong-willed beauty who’s tempted to marry a wealthy, elderly shop owner; Abel (Bruno Bichir), an earnest but penniless young barber who loves Alma; and Susanita (Margarita Sanz), a spinsterish apartment-house owner who looks for love in all the wrong places.
Hardly anyone gets what he or she wants. Chava nearly kills Rutilio’s young lover in a fit of rage while upholding “family honor,” and must disappear for two years. Alma is lured into drugs and prostitution, and can’t be saved even when Abel returns after a long absence. Susanita marries a younger man, Guicho (Luis Felipe Tovar), who works in Rutilio’s bar. She eventually discovers he is stealing from her and orders him to leave. But their story ends with just the faintest hope that, deep down, he really does love her, and she may decide to keep him around.
This is the stuff of soap opera, to be sure. But Fons and his strong ensemble cast infuse “Midaq Alley” with a passionate emotional honesty. Hayek, who’s poised on the brink of international stardom with her upcoming role in Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” sequel, is particularly compelling in her free fall from grace. Sanz and Cruz also are standouts.
First-rate production values include Carlos Marcovich’s vivid color lensing and Lucia Alvarez’s evocative musical score.