This year’s notable run of Egyptian films that engage with meaty topics ends on an intriguing note with “The Preacher,” certain to be one of the most discussed movies in the territory. Based on journalist-novelist Ibrahim Eissa’s bestselling book, the film tracks the precipitous rise of a moderate Muslim preacher whose ability to connect with the masses without resorting to fire and brimstone makes him a useful tool for government manipulation. Veteran helmer Magdi Ahmed Ali delivers a forthright critique of fundamentalist fanaticism together with an unambiguous slam at official corruption, and even if debates on the complexities of divergent Muslim beliefs are bound to go over the head of the average Westerner, and some characters are cartoonish, the message’s overall power compensates for a certain regional specificity in style and content.
Local play should be strong, and while the script’s digs at nepotism, police brutality, and ministerial malfeasance might cause the regime some discomfort, they’re unlikely to make the censors come down hard since the concept of a temperate imam is an idea they’ll be happy to get behind. Still, that leaves the bigger question of how “The Preacher” will play outside the Arab world. Lead performer Amr Saad has heaps of charm, and many programmers should be happy to push a film that counters the noxious notion of Islam as a religion of uniform intolerance, yet apart from showcases and scattered fests, it’s hard to see more than a possible Francophone release.
A richly detailed yet swift-moving credit sequence establishes the meteoric rise of preacher Hatem El-Shinawy (Saad), from humble religious halls to historic mosques and his own TV show. He has a loving wife in Omaima (Dorra), a sweet son Omar (Eyad Akram), and the world looks bright until the boy falls into a coma after nearly drowning in a pool when his father’s back is turned. Home life loses much of its joy, and Hatem throws himself even more into his work as a celebrity imam whose rational, modern approach to scripture, combined with an easygoing warmth, makes him a sought-after advisor.
Then he gets a call from the President’s son Galal asking for help: his brother-in-law Hassan (Ahmed Magdi, saddled with a dreadful wig) has become a Christian and changed his name to Boutros. The potential scandal could weaken the family’s power, so Hatem is recruited to reason with the young man, whose troubled relationship with his family has more to do with his conversion than any strongly-held religious belief. Scenes between Hatem and Hassan allow for a lively debate about the politicization of religion and the way it’s been petrified to foster hatred of the “other,” though some may feel “The Preacher” gets a bit too preachy at this point.
The same charge will be leveled against the dialogue between Hatem and Nashwa (Reham Haggag), a veiled and gloved mystery woman who questions the imam’s interpretive approach to the Koran. Even secular Muslims may get a bit lost in the hermeneutics of it all as Hatem defends the Mu’tazila school, which discourages rigid adherence to outdated and illogical religious sayings, though for alert viewers the verbal sparring has an intellectual, rather than cinematic, fascination. That’s one of the film’s biggest flaws: The script is peppered with weighty lines that should pack a punch, yet there’s often too much verbiage, and director Ali rarely allows the powerful concepts a moment to gestate.
Also problematic is the poor integration of Hatem’s troubled home life with the ever-increasing pressures put on him by government agents seeking to control his message. The balance between these thematic strands is off, and scenes with Omaima, or Hatem silently brooding over his comatose son, have a superficial, predictable quality that fits clumsily next to the more interesting plot line which sees security services and government minions pushing Hatem towards becoming their stooge. In films such as “A Girl’s Secret” and “Fawzeya’s Secret Recipe,” Ali has long used his work to make social critiques, utilizing populist forms to highlight inequality and injustice. At its best, “The Preacher” even more baldly strips away the layers of hypocrisy to show a ruling elite with tentacles in all arenas. Their Machiavellian use of the divide between Sunni and Shia has nothing to do with religion but everything to do with power.
Star Amr Saad is pitch-perfect in one of the meatiest roles of his career, fluidly tackling the dialogue-heavy theological discussions with warmth and confidence. Hatem is a humble man of principle without being a saint, and though others in the cast deliver uneven performances, Saad’s portrayal smoothly carries the film and message. Although visuals are handsome, the editing doesn’t always take advantage of the film’s strengths. A tacked-on scene during the credits panders in an unnecessary way, and orchestrations will sound over-wrought to non-locals.