"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

MASTERS - Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces (Yousry Nasrallah)

Saturday, 19 November 2016 14:33

Giona A. Nazzaro

A marxist carnal fluidity


After the somehow wildly uneven yet extraordinarily dense, fascinating and complex Baad el mawkeaa (Après la bataille) which was a both bold and generous attempt to address the aftermath of the Tahrir Square events, again Yousry Nasrallah seems to take an unpredictable detour in another completely different direction. His latest film, Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces (Al Ma' wal Khodra wal Wajh al Hassan) world-premiered in Locarno last August and was greeted by an incredibly enthusiastic audience with joyful cheering both during the screening and at the end of it. But somehow it felt as if the film didn’t click with critics. Which is quite a shame since it is Nasrallah’s most satisfying and inventive work of the recent years.

While others directors and newcomers from North Africa still seem somehow hung over on the aftereffects of the so called Arab springs, Nasrallah, fully embracing the tradition of Egyptian musical cinema and comedy rules, delivers a soaring warmhearted hymn to human resistance. Superficially described by naysayers as a banal retreat into familiar territory, Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces is indeed the strongest political statement to come out from a North African country in the last years, the other being Akher Wahed Fina – The Last of Us by Ala Eddine Slim.

Those seeking an immediately recognizable link between a sociological, political situation and the superficial combat stance of the issue-filmmaker find themselves in uncharted territory, completely out of their depths and bewildered. In this inability to understand the numerous connections between a filmic work and its many metatextual ties to the context from which it emerges lies also a non-confessed ethnocentric prejudice. As if non-European or non-Anglo-Saxon directors should always bear the yoke of being perpetually forced to chronicle the political emergencies of their countries.

Yousry NasrallahYousry Nasrallah succeeds marvelously on a completely different account. Faithful to the tradition of Egyptian cinema (let’s not forget Youssef Chahine’s masterpiece Skoot hansawwarSilence… on tourne), and yet both open and able to reframe it in a broader and more complex political context, he crafts an extremely precise portrait of his country while anchoring it in the very same energies that throb and pulse in popular music, culture and film. Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces is truly a Gramscian work.

Nasrallah does not touch on popular culture with the distant condescension of the intellectual who fakes – for opportunity’s sake – his class appurtenance or feelings, but does so with genuine and warm adhesion. The critical stance of the film stems mostly from a profound understanding of class struggle and the contradictions of the remains of what used to be the so called middle class that is almost erased now from the political scenario (not only in North Africa or in the Arab world). It is not by chance that the film takes place on the outskirts of a big city where a community gathers around a wedding banquet. The attitude of directors such as Mira Nair, Ang Lee, or other exotic filmmakers who knew in their time how to exploit their own heritage to please the deeply embedded colonial aftertaste of their western audiences is luckily nowhere to be found.

A distinct filmmaker with a distinct taste, Nasrallah proves once again that the camera is indeed the tool that expresses the articulations of a filmmaker’s thinking process. The way he uses dolly shots to explore the borders and boundaries of the community or the fluidity of his longer takes that do not owe anything to the visual steroids of contemporary steady aesthetics are proof of a cinematic wisdom that is also an energizing reinvention of the tradition of Italian post-neorealist drama. Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces bursts literally with the director’s almost singing joy in filming and reinventing the world with his camera. The almost erotic tactility of each one of his frames and the carnal fluidity (pardon the paradoxical oxymoron) of his camera movements are the key to a sensual way of thinking about cinema that is indeed the most political stance a filmmaker can take today. A testimony to an unfettered passion about filming that is quite unique (maybe only a film like Mohenjo Daro directed by the mighty Ashutosh Gowariker shares the same humanistic and political awareness towards the forms of contemporary popular cinema).

Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces is one of the most jubilant depictions of the contradictions and the possibilities of the emergence of what Gramsci described as the national-popular will. As many scholars have specified, for the national-popular will to appear the individuals should want a common change because this is what really drives the mass to emerge. Gramsci states that “Any formation of a national-popular collective will is impossible, unless the great mass of peasant farmers bursts simultaneously into political life”.

So, what we see in Nasrallah’s film is how this national-popular will can still manifest itself. It is not an easy process but you can still enjoy it while it tries to break free. Hence, the importance the director places on customs, food, courting, arguing and so on. As in Giuseppe De Santis’ Brechtian dramas or Raffaello Matarazzo’s flamboyant Marxist melodramas, in Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces the narrative structures of the film are the very critical elements that deconstruct the dominant ideology. Nasrallah utilizes the most basic narrative conventions of popular dramas not to reverse them, which would be quite easy, but to draw from them the still unpolluted energies available. There is no attempt to reinvent a faux naivete in a faux naïf way, here. On the contrary, there is a deliberate desire to regain the right and space and freedom to sing the songs that have been hijacked by rhetoric and politics and class violence. A back to the basics of popular expression.

This is the strategy by which Nasrallah tears away the cultural hegemony from the bourgeois rhetoric and tries to invent a filmic revolution where, as in a dream, the foundations of a different revolution can once again be imagined. The cultural representations of the ruling class that have perversely shaped the desires of the peasants and the working class as well are thus questioned through the outburst of a primeval energy, the energy that can be found only in a people that have rediscovered new ways to dance together, while reconquering customs and voices from those who hijacked them it in the first place.

Once the scene is set, it is immediately evident that class struggle is raging more than ever. La lucha continua. The way Nasrallah hints at the attraction exerted by Saudi monarchies on the disenfranchised and unemployed youth or the way the rebuilt oligarchies of the Egyptian upper few blackmail most of the populace does indeed belong to the canon of a long-standing comedy and musical romance, but it is the preciseness of the gaze cast on this comédie humaine that makes all the difference. Also, the cross-dressing subject (a recurring comedic motif) gets a darker and infinitely nuanced treatment that becomes even more relevant now when self-appointed civilized and western countries would like to impose a ban on burqas and burqinis in the name of… freedom. And yes: Frantz Fanon is still smiling.

A film like Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces is an irresistible clarion call to a different way of thinking and shaping our relationship with cinema. And the reason why cinema still matters in the ongoing struggle of people and nations alike.



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