Six helmers — Hend Bakr, Mohamed El-Hadidi, Ahmed Magdy Morsy, Nermeen Salem, Mayye Zayed and Mohamed Zedan — contribute to “The Mice Room,” an intriguing misfire with everyone directing, scripting and producing as a team (there’s one editor). Not a portmanteau but a single work with six distinct storylines, all set in Alexandria and sharing only one minor overlap, the film aims to capture the spirit of the city. Its formlessness is its greatest flaw, yet the concept is fascinating, and while the theory doesn’t work, the result deserves more than a mere tip of the hat. Experimental fests may be attracted.
The sextet worked on the crew of Ibrahim El Batout’s Alexandria-set “Hawi,” one of the first indie Egyptian films of the new generation to be shot exclusively in the traditional birthplace of the country’s cinema industry. Encouragingly, they’ve formed their own shingle, Rufy’s, to foster new voices from the city and hopefully capture the distinctive vibes of the locale. Ironically, “The Mice Room” would likely have been more successful as a shorts compilation, since the intercutting of so many disparate stories sans unifying thread keeps undercutting emotional involvement.
The most successful of the strands is the largely wordless tale of Rawya (Hanan Youssef), opening with her husband’s sudden death. Though she has two adult kids (Nada Riyadh, Tarek Moustafa), the widow is learning to negotiate life as the remaining half of a ruptured couple, with loss as its central, destabilizing motif. Time loses its meaning, her body clock shifts, and she walks the rooms of her apartment at night, unmoored.
In contrast, Dahlia (Noura Saafan) is getting married to Tarek (Omar Elhamy). As she’s fussed over by the hairdresser (Sherifa Taha), with friends and family bustling about, she contemplates a life with a man she barely knows. Also facing the unknown is Maha (Nihad Yahia), a young professional who’s about to move to England and is saying goodbye to her familiar life.
Amr (Zeyad Salem) tries to cope with his feelings as he watches his father (Moustafa Darwish) dying of cancer. A delightfully mischievous little girl (Malak Magdy) unexpectedly gets the full measure of her grandmother’s illness, and finally, most enigmatic of all, elderly Moussa (Kamal Ismail) wanders the Corniche in his pajamas, a mute, solitary figure who rejects all assistance.
The only moment the different stories link is when Moussa helps Dahlia’s mother (Azza El Sayed) at curbside. Otherwise, Alexandria, a city often overlooked by contempo Egyptian cinema, is the sole connection between the various strands. After a decade of imported fundamentalism extending its grip on the Mediterranean metropolis, it’s nice to see a film that sidelines such pressures and looks instead, in a sharply focused way, at indigenous lives. Like good shorts, the various stories recognize that their engagement with these personalities cover only a fraction of their lives; mixing them together perhaps heightens sensory impressions, but fails to make a genuine statement about the spirit of the place.
Actors and crew worked gratis, allowing the budget to come in at around $3,250 — an encouraging figure for young filmmakers, especially given the relatively high level of professionalism on display here. The non-professional cast delivers relaxed, modern perfs, though occasional post-production dubbing is a distraction. Not so the sophisticated use of music, sampling from traditional singers including Om Kolthoum, Fairouz and Shadia, and capturing the way such songs evoke memories and states of mind. Sound is carefully constructed in the way it frequently overlaps with the scenes that follow, though audio quality is problematic.