The Pointless Furor over “The Beauty of Roh” (حلاوة روح)

Egyptian Prime Minister banned the controversial film The Beauty of Roh, directed by Sameh Abd-el Aziz, in April 2014 after deeming certain scenes in the film ‘culturally inappropriate sexualized scenes’, as reported by Egypt Independent. The banning was welcomed by swathes of Egyptian society as a much-needed blow to the decadent immorality portrayed in the film and others produced by the megaproduction house of El-Sobky.

Public outcry centered on the rape scene of Haifa Wahby’s character Roh by Mohamed Lotfy’s ‘Jaguar’ (nickname for the character in the film). It would be very dishonest to call the action of the scene rape and it would be very generous to call this a controversial film.

The scene is drenched in the well-lit, overacted, unrealistic melodrama of the main glut of mainstream Egyptian films. This is sad given that a few of el-Sobky’s past films (Ahmed Abdallah’s The Wedding and Cabaret) bucked the trend and chose to eschew realism. However, The Beauty of Roh gives into the temptation and builds as its centerpiece a strange scene, which looks more like non-consenual heavy petty and clothes-ripping. The neurotic and overpowering musical score screams “This is horrid! This is horrid” more than the sheer brutality of a man assaulting and raping a woman. I understand that as someone living outside Egypt and one used to the blunt reality of Western films, this film still is jarring to the average Egyptian viewer. Still, I found it very hard to suspend belief while watching this scene.

I wonder if people in Egypt don’t understand what rape is all about or if directors are so wearied by censorship that their storytelling muscles have atrophied. It becomes easier to just suggest the fuck out of something rather than depict it frankly with cinematic tools.

After watching the film, I was reminded of El-Karnak (The Karnak) – another infamous and controversial film with a rape scene. I had not seen the film but decided to find the scene for the purposes of this review.

I can see where The Beauty of Roh gets its inspiration. Watch.

It’s awkward to watch because it looks or feels nothing like sexual assault. If you’re not going to watch The Beauty of Roh, I’ll save you the money for the cinema ticket or data used and tell you that it’s almost the same. No penetration or sexual abuse. Just physical violence, exposed cleavage, screaming, crying, and a lot of writhing on the floor.

Discounting the supposed horror of the rape scene, the rest of The Beauty of Roh is a poorly constructed and boring film. It’s not clear, not even at the end of the film, if it’s about the relationship between Sayed and Roh or about Roh and her life without her husband or the questionable sources of income of Bassem Samra’s character or a clumsy take on sexual politics and women’s bodies in Egypt.

Bassem Samra is the only redeeming aspect of the film with his visceral and deft characterization. It’s a confused and glossy film with little content, a lot of Wahby’s body, and a dream sequence/music video with Hakeem. The film can’t even manage sending a message out about people to stand up against sexual assault without resorting to a Brechtian “IT’S ABOUT TO GET MORAL UP IN HERE” moment.

You won’t lose much by skipping this film. For a more honest and well-made film about sexual assault, watch 6,7,8, starring Bushra, Bassem Samra, and Nilly Kareem.

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