Maintaining his reputation as an unconventional helmer who embraces sensitive pro-feminist topics in a mainstream way, Magdi Ahmed Ali celebrates female independence while slyly condemning government corruption in “Fawzeya’s Secret Recipe” (aka “Fawzia: A Special Blend”). As in the past (highly controversial, superior “Girls’ Secrets”), Ali uses reassuringly populist lensing techniques to challenge conservative, one-dimensional moralizing, in this case with the tale of a much-married woman asserting her sexuality while struggling to overcome poverty. Regional play could be boffo, but outside the Middle East, auds will need to overcome the crude meller stylizations to appreciate the subversive elements.
In a neglected Cairo slum, Fawzeya (Ilham Shaheen) makes the best of what she has, acting as a rock of fortitude for her family and neighbors. She’s had four husbands, each marriage recapped in quick succession as she turns on the charm, has a baby and then lets loose with the scoldings of a well-versed harridan. Unusually, after each divorce, she maintains a warm, friendly relationship with each ex-husband, gathering them all together at weekly dinners.
Hubby number five, Houda (Fathi Abdel Wahab), enters the picture during the funeral of one of Fawzeya’s former mates, Sayed (Ezzat Abou Ouf). Houda has difficulty adjusting to the weekly presence of his wife’s exes, but he learns to bend to her formidable will. Tragedy strikes, but Fawzeya continues to dine on the love of life that is the secret recipe to her optimistic outlook.
While undeniably soapy, pic breaks stereotypes through the over-the-top force of Fawzeya’s personality: Her unabashed enjoyment of sex (discussed, but never seen) and her self-reliance make her no man’s subordinate, and while she relishes being in love, she refuses to give away her independence. There’s no stigma attached to her divorces, and her various children maintain relationships with their fathers but are raised as part of a functional family in which love is the keystone.
Throughout, in a parallel subcurrent, Ali addresses the problems of poverty and corruption endemic to contempo Egyptian life. Fawzeya and her neighbors hope life will get better, but they’re too familiar with the system to expect miracles.
Shaheen, one of the most recognizable Egyptian stars, took home the actress award at Abu Dhabi, and she certainly gives Fawzeya her all in a grandstanding perf that’s in keeping with pic’s generally high-pitched style. Sticking to standard meller lensing (d.p. Nancy Abdel Fattah showed greater versatility with “These Girls”), Ali maintains an unmodulated rhythm of short scenes crying out for breathing room, while overlighting emphasizes the cheap color processing.