An Egyptian leper and his young orphan friend journey south in search of family in debuting director A.B. Shawky’s lovingly made road trip movie, “Yomeddine.” Anchored by lead Rady Gamal’s warm-hearted charisma, the film is a sweet, solid first feature marbled with genuinely touching moments that make up for times when the siren call of sentimentality becomes a little too loud. Shawky, a relative unknown within the Egyptian filmmaking community and an NYU graduate, shows a sure hand with his non-professional actors and, together with Argentinian cinematographer Federico Cesca, demonstrates a fine compositional eye. However, Cannes’ decision to put it in competition puts a tremendous amount of pressure on “Yomeddine” that it might not be able to bear, which is a shame as it’s an enjoyable character-driven drama that could please international audiences.
The first glimpse we get of Beshay (Gamal) is of his gnarled hands and fingers sifting through a garbage dump on the edge of the desert. He lives in a leper colony, eking out a living with his donkey Harby by selling the salvageable trash he collects. Though abandoned at the colony as a child by his father, he’s had a better life than many, yet when his mentally ill wife, Ireny (Shoq Emara), dies, he decides to seek out his birth family in Qena, a bit north of Luxor.
By the time he realizes his young friend Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz) has hidden himself in the donkey cart, it’s too late to send him back to the orphanage, so the two continue the journey south, stopping briefly at the pyramid of Meidum — the handsomely shot scene adds a little eye-catching exoticism that should appeal to offshore audiences. On the road, this odd couple encounter an unsurprising amount of hostility from those ignorantly fearful that Beshay’s leprosy is contagious, but they find companionship from a trio of outcasts, including Hamed (Yasser El-Ayouti), a legless former truck driver whose jocular directness and self-assurance are a tonic for Beshay’s frayed confidence.
The script engages in a few too many predictable plot elements, and like most road movies, there are moments when the easy route is taken, leading to well-trodden paths that will be comforting to some and overly familiar to others. This includes unnecessary flashbacks in the disguise of dream sequences that heavy-handedly spell out what’s already clear, yet just when the finale feels like it will be forced, Shawky includes a beautifully written speech that suddenly shifts what could have been easy sentiment into an unaffectedly moving scene that honestly plays on the heartstrings.
A leper colony north of Cairo was the location of the director’s 2009 short documentary “The Colony,” which inspired his first feature and was where he auditioned Gamal as his lead. The choice was fortuitous, as the new actor holds the screen in a performance characterized by wounded dignity that’s never mawkish. While the ravages of leprosy are inescapable, his shallow eye sockets and tangle of wrinkles have a certain expressive harmony which becomes ever more evident as the film goes on and Shawky allows the contours of Gamal’s face to be bathed in light. It’s a bold decision that fits perfectly with the director’s desire to make the viewer not simply look past the deformity, but see it as just one of an infinite variety of human appearances.
The film’s visuals are always attractive without engaging in poverty porn, and while Shawky ensures a firm sense of place, essential for any road movie, he maintains his focus on the characters themselves. Precisely because Beshay and Obama are such nicely drawn figures, the director should have soft-pedaled the music, which unfortunately forces emotions rather than accompanying them naturally. “Yomeddine” is Arabic for Judgment Day, mentioned twice: Once in reference to animals, who bypass judgment and go straight to heaven, and then as a way of bringing attention to the primacy of the inner, rather than outer, being.