“Rags & Tatters” will likely become a touchstone of post-revolutionary Egyptian cinema, though it may take time before critical attention gives the film its due. Ahmad Abdalla’s follow-up to “Microphone” is a nihilistic look at the poorest strata of Egyptian society in the throes of the 2011 Revolution, offering a sobering counterpoint to the inevitable air of triumphalism that first held sway following Hosni Mubarak’s fall. Boasting minimal dialogue and little exposition as the nameless protag wanders Cairo’s outlying districts seeking succor, “Rags” will be most effective with locals and audiences familiar with Egypt’s impasse, though fests should boost viewership.
Abdalla was deeply involved with a collective that gathered video documentation throughout the Revolution and its aftermath, providing the kind of footage major news sources cite as “unverified,” though these raw records of victories and atrocities have created a seismic shift in the way the 21st century views the truth behind current events. Considerably more formal and attractive than such rough images, “Rags” nevertheless traces its inspiration to these democratic encounters with reportage, acknowledging the importance of cell-phone video in recording events that would otherwise be suppressed by those seeking to control the message.
In the days leading up to Mubarak’s fall, security forces largely vanished and several jails were inexplicably opened. A man (Asser Yassin, “Messages From the Sea”) leaves prison at night and enters a nightmarish world where random shootings are almost commonplace and men manning makeshift street barricades, in the name of protecting neighborhoods, are just as likely as marauding thugs to beat up passersby.
The fugitive finds temporary refuge with edgy family and friends, but he’s drawn out to the streets again and again, witnessing the city’s uneasy tension firsthand and via overheard news reports. His spaces are the forgotten corners of Cairo, places like Ezbet El Zabbaleen, home to thousands of garbage pickers who live adjacent to the rubbish hills of Muqattam, and the vast cemetery area known as the City of the Dead, where some of the poorest reside. Here, removed from the empowering protests in Tahrir, the inhabitants become targets of sectarian aggression, attacked for being Christian or Sufi.
In contrast with recent Egyptian pics including “Winter of Discontent” and Abdalla’s beautiful entry in the portmanteau film “18 Days,” the Revolution here is a background element whose impact is anarchy rather than catharsis. As such, it’s one of the very few that won’t feel dated in a few months or years. Abdalla doesn’t hide his melancholy, which suffuses his latest work in a different way than it did in “Heliopolis,” with its reverie on a might-have-been-present ignoring the best of the past; now the sadness comes from the sobering realization that the social fabric has been picked apart for far too long, and the brave ones working to get the message out are fighting an uphill battle.
Limiting verbal interchange to the bare minimum — hardly any conversation lasts more than two sentences, and most scenes have no dialogue — is an especially bold move, and risks alienating viewers unversed in Cairo’s complex religious and class interplay, not to mention current events. However, the payoff comes in the combination of neorealist sensibilities with an almost phantasmagoric sense of a locale living in a vacuum. Joyous Sufi songs fall on increasingly deaf ears and could incur the wrath of disapproving Salafists, while Copts live in fear of attack from both Islamists and the military (crucially, Abdalla doesn’t buy into the popular yet hollow slogan, “the people and the army are one hand”).
Lead thesp Yassin has frequently put his large expressive eyes to good use, conveying the sense of soulful innocence disillusioned by the world, making him the perfect embodiment of Abdalla’s hard-earned pessimism. Casting must have been especially difficult given dialogue restrictions, but the actor masters the meaningful glance while allowing space for auds to guess at what lies beneath. Smaller roles are equally well handled.
In “Microphone,” Abdalla and d.p. Tarek Hefny designed informal visuals influenced by indie stylings, making an ideal pairing with the story of youth presciently on the verge of Revolution. With “Rags” the two craft a more sober look, partly docu-inspired, that’s paired with the nervous agitation of amateur news footage. Music is subtly inserted and refreshingly underplayed.