Fantasy about a humble accountant who throws off the yoke, “Why Does the Sea Laugh?” is charmingly directed by newcomer Mohammad Kamel El-Kalyubi and powerfully acted by Egyptian star Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz in the central role. It won a jury mention when it bowed at the Cairo Film Festival, and should be one of Egypt’s more attractive fest pickups this year.
Set against the unusual backdrop of seaside Alexandria, pic quickly sketches the humdrum blues of Hussein (Abdel-Aziz), whose life alternates between paper-pushing at work, constant fighting at home and escapist boys’-nights-out on the town. A series of undeserved humiliations pushes him over the edge. One fine day he leaves home, determined to become a bum.
This sudden release from his cares brings out a streak of naive generosity in Hussein, who looks like another man without his gray suit. He even seems a little touched, like Giulietta Masina in “La Strada.” He befriends a slew of young streetwalkers and — in a development possible only in an Arab movie — marries four of them simultaneously to keep them from going to jail. The next day he regretfully divorces them en masse to marry his true love, a performer in the street circus he has joined.
Abdel-Aziz turns in a winning perf as the saintly fool who finds true happiness only when stripped of his material goods and bourgeois lifestyle. Pic underlines its courageous, anti-authority message in the ridiculous figure of the police chief who tries to bury an empty coffin, claiming it’s his trouble-making brother-in-law Hussein.
Helmer El-Kalyubi has a light touch that keeps the film floating on an amusing, allegorical level. But pic’s serious intentions appear in a dream sequence in which Hussein painfully relives a life of failure and discouragement.
Pic would pack a much stronger punch had it avoided outbursts of needless sentimentality, generally signaled by boys flying kites and gushy music. Camera, sets and lighting have a low-budget plainness close to minimalism.