Fallen Angels Paradise (Gannet Al-Shayatin)
Screenplay : Moustafa Zekri (based on the novel "The Man Who Died Twice" by George Amado)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Mahmoud Hemida (Tabl), Lebleba (Hobba), Caroline Khalil (Salwa), Safwa (Shawkia), Amr Waked (Nonna), Serri Al Nagar (Adel), Salah Fahmi (Boussy), Saeed Al Saleh (George), Menha Al Batrawi (The Wife), Menha Zaytoun (The Aunt), Maged Kedwani (Atef)
Ossama Fawzi's Fallen Angels Paradise (Gannet Al-Shayatin) is an oddly grotesque black comedy that uses the corpse of a recently deceased homeless man to force together two disparate worlds in modern-day Egypt: the wealthy bourgeoisie and the "fallen angels" of the title, the criminal underclass who live by a rule of no rules.
Dead bodies can, of course, be quite expressive despite their inanimate status--Alfred Hitchcock got a lot of mileage out of one in The Trouble With Harry (1955), and Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman spent an entire movie trying to convince people their dead boss's corpse was an animated party animal in the ridiculous comedy Weekend at Bernie's (1990).
However, one would be hard-pressed to remember a corpse quite as expressive as Tabl, who is played by Mahmoud Hemida, who also produced the film. When he we first see Tabl, he is sitting upright in a chair, a bottle clutched in one hand, his head thrown back, and a strangely compelling open smile--almost a half-laugh--scrawled on his face. His eyes are tightly shut, and our gaze keep getting drawn back to that gaping smile, an expression that will haunt the rest of the film. Tabl's inanimate expression never changes during the film's 80-minute duration, yet at different points in the story it seems to take on different meanings. At one minute, it seems the look of happy contentment, a sign that he died in full enjoyment; at other times, it seems mocking to those around him who are dueling over who gets his body.
Tabl was once named Mounir Rasmi, and he was a successful businessman, a dedicated father and husband. But, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, 10 years earlier he suddenly left that life and joined the underworld. When he dies, he is hanging out and gambling with three young hoodlums--Nonna (Amr Waked), Boussy (Salah Fahmi), and Adel (Sari El-Naggar). Unsure of what to do with the dead body, Nonna, Boussy, and Adel decide to make a profit on it. First, they try to sell Tabl's two gold teeth, only to find out they are plated. So, they sell his body to a medical school for up-front cash.
Meanwhile, Tabl's lover, Hobba (Lebleba), an aging prostitute, feels that his family must be informed, which leads to the first of many simmering conflicts between the underworld and "respectable" society. The film's views on the Egyptian bourgeoisie are made crystal clear in Tabl's daughter, Salwa (Caroline Khalil), a cool, calculating woman whose only desire is to make sure her father gets a decent, Christian burial so that the family's respectability can be maintained in the eyes of others.
Salwa's actions are clearly not motivated by love for her long-missing father. Rather, her motive seems to be maintaining the dignity of her upper-class position. When the coroner informs her that her father died of an overdose, she quickly pays him off and ensures that the death certificate reads "heart attack." She spends a great deal of money to return Tabl's corpse to a respectable state--he is cleaned up, shaved, and dressed in an expensive suit, and he is to be carried to his funeral in a large casket driven in a limousine. All of Salwa's efforts are expended in order to erase the last ten years. It is as if Tabl is being erased from the corpse and rewritten as Mounir Rasmi.
Fallen Angels Paradise is an important moment in Egyptian cinema, as it represents one of country's most concerted efforts to fashion a contemporary, technically sound feature film. The finished product is certainly polished, even by Hollywood standards. Cinematographer Tarek Telmessani gives the film a slick visual look, often sharply contrasting darkness with penetrating beams of light. Director Ossama Fawzi, in his sophomore effort, keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, and his elicits good performances from his actors, especially the trio of hoodlums, all of whom are played by first-timers.
However, as a whole, Fallen Angels Paradise never really comes together. The tone of the film is wildly (perhaps purposefully) uneven. Some moments are dark and despairing, while other scenes are sharp with black humor, and still others are goofy and giddy, punctuated with a comical bass line on the soundtrack. The film has run into quite a bit of controversy in Egypt, mainly for its free-wheeling and non-condemning depiction of criminality and its humorous use of a corpse in a culture that reifies death and traditional funeral rituals.
In this way, the film is certainly daring, and there are moments that work very well. Yet, it's too much of a pastiche. As a major step forward in Egyptian cinema, it certainly is an important film. But, at the same time, it is also evidence that there is still room for improvement.
©2001 James Kendrick