An older, terminally ill man locks himself inside his home and memories in tyro helmer Ayten Amin’s “Villa 69,” a moody character study whose ambitions are partly outstripped by the crew’s relative inexperience. Atmosphere isn’t wanting, but the script would have benefited from a clearer narrative, which lacks the kind of structural solidity that would allow the subtle portraits to shine properly. Grounded in an indie aesthetic yet boasting major Egyptian stars, “Villa 69” won’t play beyond small niche audiences at home; offshore fest chances could improve with better subtitling. The special jury mention at the Abu Dhabi fest should get programmers’ attention.
Best known for her entry in the portmanteau docu “Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician,” Amin has made bold casting decisions here certain to generate discussion across the region. As the film’s protagonist, Khaled Abol Naga (also credited as exec producer) delivers a sensitive performance, despite being more than 20 years younger than the character; grayed hair and aging makeup go only some way toward redressing the imbalance. Appearing opposite as his sister is legendary actress Lebleba, affectionately called the Margaret O’Brien of Egyptian cinema when she was a child star in the 1950s. International audiences unfamiliar with their reps won’t be too surprised, but for Arab viewers, casting these two as siblings may make it hard to suspend disbelief.
Almost all the action takes place in a spare, well-designed villa beside the Nile where architect Hussein (Abol Naga) has closed himself off from the world. A testy contrarian of the old school unafraid to volunteer his opinion, Hussein is, deep down, a kind, perceptive aristocrat who’s seen his world slowly expire. Remaining in his home, he keeps crass outsiders at bay while hiding his illness (unnamed) from view, except from visiting nurse Hanaa (Heba Yousry, expertly infusing a small role with warmth and character).
Soon after Hussein’s servant takes a leave of absence, his sister Nadra (Lebleba) turns up saying she needs to stay, as her own home is being repainted. She’s not alone: Besides her maid and driver, she’s got her 18-year-old grandson, Seif (Omar El Ghandour), in tow. Hussein’s not happy about any of this, wanting to be left in peace except for occasional visits by his much younger photographer g.f., Sanaa (Arwa Gouda).
Fantasy sequences, unclear at first, have Hussein jamming with musician friends (Yousra Al Hawary, Emad Maher and Sedky Sakhr) from the 1970s, recapturing a spirit of youthful ease that obviously passed the architect by decades earlier. Seif is also a musician, and despite Hussein’s outward reluctance to be host and great-uncle, he encourages the young man; one of the nicest scenes has him playing the oud with Seif and his band, though Amin cuts too soon and could have increased emotional returns had she held the shot longer.
The pic has many such missteps, though they’re mostly restricted to the formless script, which aims for a poetic subtlety it can’t quite sustain. The character of Nadra, in particular, falls victim to weaknesses in the text, and she’s suddenly dropped for too long. Her initial ambiguity — she has the appearance of selfishness — adds depth, but there’s a need for some kind of heart-to-heart catharsis between the two siblings that never properly arrives. In a similar vein, Sanaa remains a mysterious presence; her motivations, and Hussein’s comfort in her presence, need more development.
Notwithstanding the unusual casting, Abol Naga (“Microphone,” “One-Zero”) captures Hussein’s world-weariness together with the unquenchable glow that memory keeps alive. His orneriness acts as a protective shield, partly an outgrowth of his cultivated, privileged background and partly a removable mask, and the actor seems to wear that history in the same way he sports his bathrobe, with a well-worn familiarity. He relaxes in the company of younger people — Seif and Sanaa — because they allow him to forget the present, whereas his sister is a constant reminder of age and an unretrievable past.
Lensing is often attractive but uneven, elegantly exploring the villa (a character in its own right), yet also overly determined to ensure audiences haven’t missed a detail, such as a knocked-over water bottle, or vomit on a robe. Certain angles feel like test shots, though the wealth of closeups testify to Amin’s justified confidence in her actors. Visually, the biggest flaw is the excessively strong lighting, whose harshness too often obliterates the moody atmosphere.