Currently the biggest box office hit in Egypt, “Nasser 56” shows all the signs of making a triumphant sweep through other Arab countries. Its Tunisian premier at the Carthage Film Days had auds spontaneously applauding all the way through its two-hour-plus running time. But whether this adulatory biopic of Egypt’s charismatic postwar leader, President Gamal Abdel Nasser (in office from 1954-70), has much to say to Westerners is another matter.
As a slice of history filmed from an Arab point of view, the film is fascinating. Its insistence that 120,000 Egyptian workmen died building the Suez Canal, for instance, is a point worth making. But while local audiences identify with its pan-Arab patriotism, other viewers are unlikely to find that side of the film emotionally exalting. At best, its uncritical glorification of Nasser may rouse interest as a curiosity item.
Pic was made for TV but released in theaters, where its overwhelming success caught both producers and distribs unprepared. In its 142-minute cut by director Mohamed Fadel and editor Kamal Abou al-Ela, it still contains repetitions and ends abruptly, in the middle of an international crisis. The style of the pic, filmed in high-contrast B&W and scored with a one-motif music track featuring trumpets, irresistibly recalls American TV drama of the 1950s.
Family man Nasser (played with great charisma by star Ahmed Zaki, a cross between Nasser and Humphrey Bogart) has a cloying wife and five adorable kids, but running the nation takes up most of his time. When pic opens he is already a national hero, having abolished the monarchy and ended Britain’s 72-year occupation of Egypt.
But in 1956 a crisis is brewing: Britain and the U.S. have withdrawn their support of the Aswan High Dam project on the Nile. Nasser makes the bold decision to nationalize the Suez Canal (still run by the Brits) to finance the dam with canal tolls, thus precipitating Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsula, and France and Britain’s invasion of Egypt. End of film.
Why the story should end before peace was restored (by the U.S. working through the U.N.) is a mystery, though a sequel could be on its way. Though not a brilliant director, Fadel creates some credible moments in re-enacting the crisis, and the B&W lensing allows him to integrate newsreel footage seamlessly. The takeover of the canal by the Egyptian army is handled with fine dramatic flair and a lot of trumpets.