A labor of love for all concerned, helmer Ahmad Abdalla’s “Heliopolis” reps a respectable debut feature that focuses a sharp critique of Egyptian society matched by a nostalgia-drenched longing for life before the 1952 Revolution. Far more influenced by the Euro arthouse reflections of Yousry Nasrallah than the meller styling of popular Egyptian pics, Abdalla adheres to his roots as a film editor with nice montages and a generally skillful handling of the story’s choral nature, affectingly exposing the malaise of Cairo’s middle class. Home play may be hampered by censorship, but fests should take notice.
Indie producer Sherif Mandour (“Eye of the Sun”) must have called in lots of favors, as name cast and crew reportedly provided their services gratis. For the most part, low-budget constraints don’t show, and the pic’s accessibility means Euro cable might come calling.
Grad student Ibrahim (Khaled Abol Naga) is researching Cairo’s ethnic makeup around the time of the Revolution. He’s come to the faded grandeur of the Heliopolis neighborhood to interview elderly Jewish resident Vera (celebrated stage star Aida Abdel-Aziz).
At the same time, Dr. Hany (indie musician Hany Adel) is looking to sell his apartment so that he can join his family in Canada. Maha (Aya Soliman) and Ali (Atef Yousef), newly engaged, make an appointment to see the place, but the impossibility of Cairo traffic (a handy metaphor for the nation’s sense of political and existential gridlock) leads to yet another wasted day of frustration.
Hotel receptionist Engy (Hanan Motawe) stares with envy at the guests arriving with their Western clothes and physical ease, while interwoven throughout the film are largely wordless scenes involving a young policeman (Mohamad Brequa, of soulful eyes) and a stray puppy.
Heliopolis was built by Belgian architects as a haven for foreign nationals and the rich, and while it’s still a middle-to-upper-class enclave, the years following the Revolution have witnessed not just the flight of European residents but stagnation. The housebound Vera is a typical older resident — she hides her Jewish faith from new neighbors and speaks longingly of the grand French and English restaurants and cafes that once lined the avenues.
Ibrahim’s street interviews, in a quasi-docu style, reveal dissatisfaction on all social levels. Though he’s part of a younger generation without first-hand memories of the Golden Years, the generally strong screenplay makes Ibrahim more than a mere conduit for these stories. Caught in emotional limbo (his ex-g.f., voiced by Hend Sabry, is heard on his answering machine in a wistful monologue), Ibrahim and the other characters appear paralyzed, as if contempo Egypt itself sits so heavily on its citizens that no one can move.
Local censors might let that through, though a friend of Ibrahim’s (Tamer El-Said) finally calls a spade a spade when he remarks on how martial law was merely replaced by anti-terrorism law, “and they’ll come up with something else.”
While most perfs are solid — special nods go to Yousef, Soliman and Abol Naga — thesping styles aren’t unified. Likewise, sections are not without a certain clumsiness, and though Abdalla’s editing background comes to the fore, he occasionally cuts off shots sooner than warranted; the final scene however is especially strong. He’s also good at capturing the physical sense of Heliopolis, with its turn-of-the-century splendor just about holding out against recent shoddy architecture.
Color and sound correction on the print viewed weren’t completed, but restrained, melancholic music is well used.
“Heliopolis” should not be confused with Mohammed Khan’s 2007 film “In the Heliopolis Flat,” also starring Abol Naga.