Though it’s OK as a colorful portrait of changing values in an Egyptian village, there’s little to separate “Date Wine” from many other similar, semi-allegorical Third World yarns. Toplined by a rumbustious performance from local star Sherihan as a spirited oasis looker, this second feature by writer-director Radwan el-Kashef, a former a.d. to Youssef Chahine, looks set for the usual watering holes of festivals and upscale Eurowebs.
Atmospheric, almost Leone-ish opening, has a man arriving at a small, abandoned fort in a sandy corner of southern Egypt. An old woman welcomes him back and relates the story of how the village emptied.
One day, apparently, a curious caravan of masked bikers arrived, with their unseen leader luring the community’s men away with promises of riches and luxury. But young Ahmed stayed, and embarked on a fiery relationship with his cousin, Salma (Sherihan), with whom he had a child out of wedlock. When the men returned, dejected by their failure in the world outside, they sought to re-impose traditional values on a society that had already changed and been remolded by Ahmed, now a full-fledged man.
Pic is sometimes confusing in its narrative, and can never really make up its mind whether it is a down-in-the-dust love story or symbol-laden drama. (Helmer intended it as a portrait of the effect on Egypt of mass emigration in the ’70s, especially to Gulf states.) But especially in its first half, the movie often shows a nice sense of ironic humor and a lively sense of community, with songs and Yasser Abdel-Rahman’s Arab-Western symphonic score adding atmosphere.
Main blip in the casting is the colorful Sherihan, who seems a tad old for the Salma part and looks like she’s wandered off the set of an adjacent musical. Though the actress came out of cinematic retirement to play the role (written for her back in ’89), she blends ill with the other, less flashy players. Technically, pic is pro, with solid camerawork and a natural flow to the editing. Original title means “The Sweat of the Palm Trees.”