A curious buddy-road movie with surrealist touches, celebrated short-firm director Sherif El Bendary’s feature debut brings together disparate elements for an unexpectedly warm-hearted finale that asserts the primacy of love in whatever form it may take. Audiences will likely spend at least half the viewing time trying to work out the metaphors, only to conclude that they’re thinking too hard: “Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim” is perhaps most surprising because it wants to be taken straight, even if it is about a man in love with a goat, and another tormented by phantom sounds. Balanced in that nether-region between mainstream and art house, the film has occasional missteps but ultimately projects a refreshing degree of guilelessness, and could nicely slot into festival programs in need of more upbeat fare.
El Bendary’s shorts and medium-length documentary “On the Road to Downtown” had a visible presence on the festival scene, and “Ali” received grants from a number of film funds (Final Cut in Venice, Sanad, Enjaaz, etc.). Based on an unpublished story by fellow director Ibrahim El Batout (“Winter of Discontent”) and fleshed out by rising screenwriter Ahmed Amer, “Ali” makes remarkably few political statements, but perhaps it’s not too much of an over-reading to speculate that its apolitical stance is itself a reaction to Egypt’s increasingly repressive measures. Rather than going the usual route of using metaphor to obliquely comment on the society, the filmmakers look inward, suggesting that overcoming personal demons through love is the only way Egyptians can currently work towards a more equitable society.
A nicely shot opening introduces a large pink teddy bear, carried by Ali (Ali Sobhy, winner of the best actor award in Dubai). He’s bringing the stuffed animal to his girlfriend Nada, but he and friend Kamata (Osama Abo El-Ata) are stopped by a nasty cop (Asser Yassin in a fun cameo appearance) who disembowels the bear while searching for suspected drugs, ignoring cries of help from an abducted woman in a speeding car. Once Ali and Kamata are released, the two friends look to rescue the woman, who turns out to be a prostitute named Nour, real name Sabah (Nahed El Sebai).
It’s unclear why the script bothers with this poorly integrated, unsatisfactory side plot, though presumably El Bendary and Amer felt the need for a female character, as well as an additional example of nontraditional love, along the lines of Don Quixote (in the more Sancho Panza guise of Kamata) and Dulcinea. The cop’s preoccupation with the teddy bear rather than the abducted woman makes a statement about police priorities, yet the critique makes barely a dent. Fortunately, attention quickly returns to Ali and his love Nada, who’s not exactly a traditional girlfriend: She’s a goat — a very sweet, white goat, but still a goat, whom he treats as he would a human companion. Ali’s mother Nusa (Salwa Mohamed Aly, one of Egyptian cinema’s underappreciated gems) is fed up and takes her son to a spiritual healer, who tells him to throw a stone into each of Egypt’s three bodies of water: Nile, Mediterranean, and Red Sea.
Also at the healer’s is Ibrahim (Ahmed Magdy) a sound engineer tormented by phantom screeches, which sound like high-pitched microphone feedback. It’s a family ailment: His mother killed herself because of it, and his grandfather made himself deaf to escape the noise. Ibrahim tries to record the sound in order to exorcise it, but he fails, and in desperation seeks out the same witch doctor as Ali. So begins the road movie part of the film, in which this unlikely duo, of vastly different temperaments, try to find inner peace.
The story’s absurdist elements must come from somewhere, and El Bendary has spoken of the characters’ neuroses springing from Cairo’s chaotic assault on its residents’ sensibilities. The noise in Ibrahim’s head can be taken as the cacophonous pressures of the metropolis, and Ali’s attachment to the goat as a response to the city’s tendency to alienate people from those around them. That viewers accept Ali’s profound love for Nada — and even find it touching at the end — testifies to the director’s skill as well as actor Sobhy’s ability to win over audiences with a nuanced performance that combines an all-out charm assault with surprising depth.
The film has intermittent balance problems, particularly around scenes with Sabah the prostitute. When Ali and Kamata rescue her from a gang of nasty clients, they douse the car with accelerant and set it alight with the perpetrators still inside — an excessive action out of keeping with Ali and Kamata’s characters. Rapid editing during Ibrahim’s torments feels ungainly, though for the most part the camerawork has a smooth, satisfying sense of movement.