Tonally all over the map, the script presumably went through so many revisions it lost both cohesion and bite.

Though cognoscenti have long known she’s one of Egypt’s best screen actresses, Sawsan Badr has never achieved top star status. Her impressive perf in Khaled El Hagar’s “Lust” reveals why she’s so well-regarded, but at the same time exposes everything that’s wrong with this overblown sudser about a controlling mother in an Alexandria slum. Tonally all over the map, the script presumably went through so many revisions it lost both cohesion and bite, while the gratingly melodramatic score kills any genuine feeling. Despite some French coin and the Cairo fest’s top prize, “Lust” won’t seduce offshore auds.

The pic’s title would be better translated as “Longing,” but obviously that’s not quite as catchy. The yearning implicit in the name is for control and status, personified by Fatma (Badr), a sometime fortune teller and mother of three who disgraced her parents 20 years earlier by marrying a man (scripter Sayed Ragab) beneath her station. Now she and her family are crowded into a backstreet alley, her husband an alcoholic and her youngest kid, Saad, a sickly child.

Fatma’s key means of dominion over her surroundings come via trancelike fits, in which she curses those around her in a deep monotone and rhythmically bangs her head against a wall; that Badr makes these “spells” seem more disturbing than ridiculous is entirely through her committed intensity.

When Saad needs dialysis, Fatma can’t face asking her family for money, so she looks for a job in Cairo. No one will hire her, so she takes to begging, which she discovers can be quite lucrative.

By the time she returns to Alexandria, the situation has changed. Now Fatma’s begging is directed at ensuring her daughters Shooq (pop-star Ruby) and Awatef (Merihan) have a dowry large enough for her overweening aspirations. Subsequent begging trips to Cairo result in tidy sums, some of which she lends to neighbors as a means of keeping them under her thumb. The film aims for a Shakespearean level of tragedy with Fatma’s epiphany toward the end, but the scene’s aims are far more ambitious than either El Hagar (Blighty’s “Room for Rent”) or Ragab can achieve.

Pic has hints of deep sociological concerns: Questions of class are never far away, with the narrow options available to women also touched on, and at times perpetuated by the women themselves. Yet overdramatic situations undercut attempts at greater insight; unlike the best mellers that use the formula’s excess to highlight society’s metaphorical prisons, here any genuine commentary is drowned in a turgid mire.

A superabundance of characters seems to imply that scenes were cut, and occasional problems with continuity suggest editing didn’t go smoothly. Rising — indeed towering — over it all is Badr’s ego-defying performance, which breathes life into a figure far better scripted than anyone around her. Badr makes Fatma real, conveying the true tragedy in the role and leaving auds yearning to see her in an authentic Shakespearean role worthy of her talents.

Lensing by Spanish d.p. Nestor Calvo brings out only generic differences between Cairo’s chaos and Alexandria’s claustrophobic slums, and El Hagar barely manages to make Fatma’s quasi-incestuous alleyway a vital determinant of character rather than a mere telenovela locale. Hisham Gabr’s music is overbearing.

Lust

Egypt-France

Production

An Arabica Movies, 3B Prods., production with the participation of Fonds Sud. (International sales: Arabica Movies, Cairo.) Produced by Mohamed Yassine. Executive producer, Amr El Saify. Directed by Khaled El Hagar. Screenplay, Sayed Ragab.

Crew

Camera (color), Nestor Calvo; editor, Manar Hosny; music, Hisham Gabr, Walid Saad; production designer, Hend Haider; costume designer, Monia Fath El Bab; sound (Dolby Digital), Gomaa Abdel-Latif; line producer, Ahmed Badawy; assistant director, Ehab Amr. Reviewed at Cairo Film Festival (competing), Dec. 5, 2010. Running time: 138 MIN.

With

Sawsan Badr, Ruby, Sayed Ragab, Merihan, Ahmed Azmy, Ahmed Kamal, Mohamed Ramadan, Doaa Te'ama, Boutros Boutros Ghali.

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