It speaks volumes that we get to know the woman’s back, hunched over dishes or laundry, against cracked tiles rimmed in dirty grout, before we get a proper look at her careworn face. And even then, the eyes of this Egyptian housewife (a superbly self-contained Demyana Nassar), the mother of two grimy, wriggling little boys, remain downcast as her husband (Samy Bassiouny) barks a grocery order and carefully metes out dirty banknotes from a meager supply. It seems, briefly, as though Omar El Zohairy’s Cannes Critics’ Week winner “Feathers” will continue in this vein, as a beautifully framed, sharply observed, quiet depiction of social inequity, squalor and the subjugation of women in an Egyptian factory town. But that’s before the husband turns into a chicken.
Strangeness runs through El Zohairy’s tremendously impressive and complete feature debut like an electrical current, but it is treated with absolute, stonefaced straightforwardness, like a really black-hearted Aki Kaurismaki or a slightly more lighthearted Adilkhan Yerzhanov. The tonal mix is possible because of the gently over-keyed reality he has already established: As specific as the family’s dingy apartment is, it is also a dystopian anywheresville. The location’s exposed pipelines, crumbling buildings and arid scrub are played for wry visual humor in the wide shots of Kamal Samy’s reserved, casually gorgeous camerawork and set the perfect stage on which to play out this compellingly absurdist, increasingly dark narrative of slow-acting liberation.
The inexplicable transmogrification of foul human into human fowl happens at a fourth birthday party, when the husband — a much fonder father than he is a spouse — climbs into a box as part of a trick performed by the dodgy magician he’s hired. The magician then pulls from the box a fluffy white chicken (a resplendent creature who will get progressively less so as the film goes on), to the applause of the attendees, but then finds that he cannot get the man back. What actually happened is revealed later on — though never logically explained — in a bold swift turn to the dark side that makes sense of the film’s punchy and disturbing prologue.
In the meantime, the wife (who is never named) must cope with the sudden absence of the family breadwinner, as well as taking a crash course in chicken care and dutifully doing all she can to reverse whatever spell he’s under, despite the slow-dawning realization that her lot, if not that of her sons, may in fact be significantly improved by this unexpected turn of events. Hope, as Emily Dickinson might write were she reviewing this defiantly oddball, subversively feminist film, is a thing with feathers.
Money is the most acute of her problems especially as her husband’s landlord-boss refuses to give her his back pay, or to allow her to work in his stead. With several months’ rent past due, and a lot of quackish witch doctors, spellcasters and vets to pay, not to mention her sons’ hungry mouths — and her newly enchickened husband’s beak — to feed, the woman at first subsists on charity from friends and relatives. But soon darker agendas are revealed, especially in one of her benefactors who wants more than a little quid pro quo. Finding work is not easy, and she goes through a couple of jobs before landing a relatively stable position — in one such, El Zohairy’s mordantly scathing view of the stratification of Egyptian society manifests eloquently when she is caught stealing from the rich lady whose house she’s cleaning. Her package of purloined goods — some off-cut bits of meat, a half-full pot of jam — is pitiful, but elicits no mercy.
Fizzy little touches abound like cheap tinsel decorations tacked up for a party: a soundtrack featuring both “Popcorn” and a hilariously inappropriate, tinny muzak cover of the theme from “Love Story”; an unusual fondness for downtrodden-looking animals — chickens, of course, but also cows, donkeys and a rather aggressive circus monkey — wandering about in the background. And if the pacing lags a fraction in the later stretches, Samy’s wonderful, textural photography keeps us rapt, his offbeat framing making as much of rusting window bars and money turned brown and suede-like with age as it does of grandly dismal, scuffed rooms and dramatically dust-blown exteriors.
Men are, of course, faintly damned by the brusque way they either brush the woman off or attempt to take charge, yet still the taciturn screenplay, co-written by El Zohairy and Ahmed Amer, never overplays the screw-the-patriarchy angle. Instead, as the film moves to its wickedly darkhearted, guiltily satisfying conclusion, the woman’s demeanor changes so microscopically you could almost miss it. It’s just that suddenly, she looks less like she’s trying to erase herself from every scene and to remove herself from every room (Nassar’s ability to command the screen while always seeming to shy away from it, is uncanny). It makes “Feathers” less a tale of revenge than of dawning self-worth, however dubiously founded, as well as a radical reinterpretation of the meaning and inference of the term “hen-pecked.”