Rigorously shot and edited, Hala Lotfy’s impressive debut, “Coming Forth by Day,” is an Egyptian story told via an indie arthouse aesthetic whose antecedents include Chantal Akerman and Tsai Ming-liang. Largely a two-hander about a mother and daughter looking after their stroke-ridden husband/father, the pic stands out for its extraordinary use of space and time, fully grasping the emptiness of lost lives. None of this makes for commercial appeal, of course, and Abu Dhabi’s Fipresci prize is a good indicator of the route that stretches ahead.
The fact that the film bears no resemblance to most current Arab-lingo cinema will become a major talking point (ignoring the history of indie films in the region, but never mind). In look and pacing, it fits perfectly into the canon of Euro fest taste, where it’s likely to stride forth, leaving a come-hither trail of fans in its wake. This meticulously crafted work deserves the expected accolades, yet there’s no denying its limited audience.
The plot is basic: Soad (Donia Maher) is trapped at home looking after her incapacitated father (Ahmed Lutfi). Her mom, Hayat (Salma Al-Najjar), works the graveyard shift as a nurse in a hospital, so when she’s in the apartment, she spends most of her time sleeping, barely mustering the energy to relieve her daughter for more than a few minutes. Even when they’re together, these women are disturbingly alone, particularly Soad, who’s given up her life out of duty (there’s no sign of love here), yet also, one suspects, out of fear of engaging with the world outside.
Within, the apartment might as well be sealed up like a pharaoh’s tomb. Lotfy’s use of space is nothing short of miraculous, disorienting the viewer by almost eliminating a sense of time. From the kitchen, there’s only darkness coming from the window, but in another room, sunlight can be seen throwing a triangular patch on a dun-colored wall. With Hayat snoozing for most of the beginning of the film, it becomes impossible to tell what the hour is, and the airlessness pervading the apartment is so oppressive that auds can almost sense the smell of stagnating life.
The mind-numbing drudgery — washing dishes, cleaning bed sores — is finally relieved when Soad tells her mother she’s going to the beauty parlor. Having sworn she’d be gone for just a few hours, she stays out all night, a lonely figure aimlessly wandering amid some of Cairo’s forgotten landmarks. Enervated by her entrapped life, she seems incapable of formulating her own desires, and this external jaunt further reinforces her distressing disconnection from the outside world.
Lenser Mahmoud Lotfy is fully in tune with his director sister’s meticulous sensibility, using the neutral camera almost like a ghostly cat only vaguely interested in the people living within its home. Slow pans define the claustrophobic space, the air almost visibly weighed down by the stench of open wounds and festering mattresses. Within the walls, the tonalities stick to sand colors that blend with the shadows and the yellowing light, adding to the sense of inescapability. When Soad comes forth, the relief is evident on her largely passive face, yet viewers will doubt whether she’ll be able to maintain a life fulfilled on the inside and out.