Sharp social critique infuses the populist Egyptian cinema stylings of “Nawara,” a velvet-clothed yet biting commentary on how the poor always get screwed. Director-scripter Hala Khalil (“Cut & Paste”) sets her story just after the 2011 Revolution, focusing on a good-natured maid working for a wealthy, politically connected family in an exclusive Cairo gated community. For viewers outside the region unused to traditional Egyptian melodrama tropes, the unmodulated lighting and expansive behavior of some characters will be off-putting, but many pointed references to current local woes, along with the award-winning performance of star Menna Shalabi, should translate to big box office at home.
Though not one to complain, Nawara (Shalabi) doesn’t have an easy life. She’s been married for five years to Aly (Ameer Salah Eldin), but the marriage has yet to be consummated since they can’t afford to move in together (such situations have long been a common theme in Egyptian novels and movies). She and her grandmother (Ragaa Hussein) dwell in an impoverished neighborhood on Cairo’s outskirts, so Nawara gets up early to fill jugs from the communal faucet, then heads to the hospital, where her father-in-law, ill with cancer, lies on the corridor floor waiting for a bed to become available.
From there, Nawara boards various forms of public transport to arrive at the gated community where she works as a maid for Usama (Mahmoud Hemeda) and Shahinda (Sherine Reda), a spectacularly entitled couple whose connections to Hosni Mubarak’s power machine mean they’ve long taken their life of privilege for granted. From their immaculate lawn and pool to the enviable amount of fresh food that goes into their dog Butch’s daily dinners, the disparity between this family’s life and Nawara’s is unbridgeable.
Khalil ensures that the social unrest enveloping Egypt during this period comes through in background visuals, like graffiti, and via radio reports and dinner-table conversation. Mubarak’s cronies are fleeing the country with their millions, protests demanding justice are taking over the streets, and rumors are rife that the poor will get a windfall when the new government manages to impound the funds squirreled in foreign bank accounts. Much of the impact of “Nawara” lies in the very depressing knowledge that when the dust settled, the goals of the Revolution were trounced and the corrupt power players from a decade ago returned in force, with no accountability. It’s all summed up by Usama’s nonchalant attitude: As Nawara washes her face in a bucket on the floor at home, he casually dives into his pristine pool, knowing that all this unrest will pass.
Everyone in the community is locking their doors and fleeing abroad, yet Usama keeps resisting, until finally his frightened family persuades him to change his mind and they leave. Shahinda tells Nawara that she must stay in the house to give the impression that the family is only momentarily out, but Aly isn’t happy that he can’t keep tabs on his wife, and Nawara herself, unfailingly sweet-natured, tries to please everyone in an impossible situation.
A wealth of details will have meaning mostly for Egyptians and those close to the country: Nawara removes her hijab (undoubtedly instructed to do so) when serving dinner at a party, since the veil is often a class symbol as well as a religious one. Aly’s father’s horrendous treatment (hospital scandals have been rife in the last few years) results just from his state of poverty, but also from the fact that he’s Nubian, relegating him to an even lower rung on the social ladder; word is that the smooch between Aly and Nawara represents the first time a Nubian-Caucasian couple have kissed on Egyptian screens.
Likely to distance international audiences is the way Khalil adheres to populist national-cinema stereotypes in the visuals (which are largely brightly lit and undifferentiated) and character development, yet surely she does so with subversive intent. As one of the most clear-cut critiques of a post-Mubarak Egypt, in which the corrupt bigwigs of the past are transparently shown as an untouchable class who’ve managed to survive intact the temporary blip of Revolution, “Nawara” has earned a place in future studies of national cinema trends.
Grounding it all is Shalabi’s immensely likable persona, making the upbeat Nawara much more than a one-dimensionally optimistic naif. As a working-class Everywoman, she’s designed to be the sort who’s trammeled on by society, trained from infancy not to complain, and yet her sympathetic mien and habit of just getting on with things endow her with heart and soul.