Acclaimed Egyptian helmer Daoud Abdel Sayed returns to the screen after an eight-year hiatus with the character-driven mood piece “Messages From the Sea.” Set in a melancholic, stratified Alexandria, this surprisingly femme-empowered tale refuses to offer salvation, opting to enter inside the protags’ unfulfilled longings through a felicitous combo of perfs, music and atmospheric lensing. Though it would benefit from pacier line delivery and greater attention to character balance, the pic should be buoyed by fest play and strong crix response at home following a February opening.
The first half is narrated by Yehia (Asser Yasin), a young doctor whose slight stutter marginalizes him socially and professionally. Just returned to Alexandria, he adopts the solitary profession of fisherman, confident that his monthly family stipend will make up for any income fluctuations. He reconnects with the neighbors, Francesca (docu helmer Nabiha Lotfy) and her free-spirited dressmaker daughter, Carla (Samia Asaad), with whom he had a fling a decade earlier.
One night, Yehia has a meet-cute with Nora (Basma), who agrees to come back to his place for tea and then spends the night. All signs point to her being a prostitute, and Nora makes no attempt to hide this. Following this one-night stand, Nora disappears for a bit as the plot concentrates on Yehia’s emotional floundering and his relationship with various side characters including Carla, who jumps wholeheartedly into a lesbian liaison and never reappears.
When Nora returns, she maintains an air of mystery; in the second half, she provides some of the narration, verbalizing her anxious malaise while holding back a crucial secret. Her relationship with Yehia intensifies, but he soon chafes at her unavailability and her ready availability to others. Nora wants to be with Yehia, but she needs him to accept who she is before she’s willing to fully open herself up.
In keeping with the uncertain nature of his characters, Abdel Sayed (“Kit Kat,” “Land of Fear”) refrains from tying everything up too neatly: Even his vision of Alexandria matches the inhabitants, maintaining a veneer of decadence that barely covers the unspoken tensions beneath. The helmer lovingly lenses the city’s grand facades in tribute to a gentility that cuts through all classes: Yehia’s bouncer friend, Abeel (Mohamed Lotfy, in a Mike Mazurki role), is working-class, but he, too, is representative of a courteous past quickly being replaced by the crass commercialism of new landlord Hashem (Salah Abdallah).
Abdel Sayed’s script feels overly literary at times, especially in the narration, but it succeeds in conveying an intelligence only occasionally undermined by ill-fitting scenes, such as Yehia’s brutal beating by policemen who think he’s stolen a stereo. Transitions can be abrupt, and the whole package needs a little tightening, but the female characters are especially well defined, and there’s a sexual frankness that’s both bold and refreshing.
In mood and tone, it’s clear the helmer set out to make an anti-melodrama, and thesping is especially strong throughout: Yasin’s sympathetic, open face is the right vehicle to convey Yehia’s turmoil, and his stutter feels neither forced nor like a bid for pity. Basma was in need of a role to show her acting chops, and here, her natural grace is paired with longing and a well-buried sadness that fleshes out Nora’s contradictions.
Digital projection in Berlin resulted in images that were too dark, but it’s clear the tech credits are topnotch. Though occasionally overreliant on scenes opening with gently sweeping crane shots, the lensing has real polish. Music, heavy on Chopin, deliberately lingers on and adds to the bittersweet air.