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

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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.

OLR – “Where the Wild Things Are”

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This film, although lush with Spike Jonze’s dedication to detail for the dream world, is a little weak. It gets lost in the world of the giant creatures – beautifully made and astutely brought to life -, which drags on until a fairly predictable resolution. Film is intelligent and appealed to my emotions through its metaphor of childhood loneliness and alienation, but its lack of chutzpah left me bored. Still one for the collection. Nod to emotive and expansive soundtrack and sound design.

OLR – “Black Book”

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I’m glad I discovered this absolutely priceless gem. Black Book is Europe’s answer to Inglorious Basterds, taking a more stark and less moralistic approach to revenge. The acting is measured but very powerful. The story breaks away from the three act structure without getting lost in the subplot of Ellis’ inner turmoil. Although I flinched when I saw the opening flashback mechanism used (it’s overused in both international and American cinema), the denouement reminded me again that she’s looking back and I wasn’t displeased at that. A breath of fresh air into the Nazi/WWII/Holocaust genre in the spirit of The Reader.

OLR – “A Mighty Heart”

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This is the first film I watch Angelina Jolie act in and she gives a brilliant, measured performance. Her accent is flawless and her characterization is just on point. A simple, quiet European-style film with little embellishments. It casts an honest look into the politics of Asia. Mariane’s breakdown then sudden denial is a bit shaky, but it can be overlooked and put in context of an overall strong and impactful film.

OLR – “A Case of Murder”

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Picked this up secondhand. It’s sad to have to write another negative review of a South African film. Another casualty of cinema. A really weak, tepid, and poor film. All the acting is hollow, especially Steve Hofmeyer’s. All he could was shout and howl and fake grunt. The score is dated and the post-production way dated. No idea how this film was given a thumbs up at Strasbourg Film Festival. A resounding boo.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0348565/

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest”

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What a way to wrap up the trilogy. The 3rd film brings back the punch and grit of the 1st film. The expected wide shot of Stockholm ends the trilogy. Again, the title of the film has been interpreted rather than translated; a literal one would be “The Hornets Nest that Was Stirred”. And it makes sense in terms of the film because as much as Lisbeth finds redemption and freedom, the story ends more about the shitstorm that ensued over her story.

More superior acting from Noomi Rapace in showing the resurgence of emotions in Lisbeth’s character. All the characters are three-dimensional and developed. The cinematography was uneventful, but not weak in any way. Again, we were spoiled in the 1st film.

We get a far richer experience of the Swedishness of the story in the 3rd film than the others. We see Sweden’s answer to the British stiff upper lip in the courtroom in the non-dramatic exit of the prosecutor, in the measured strain of the judges, and in showing a bit more about the country’s demographics through exploring, temporarily, the various immigrant characters involved in the plot. But the real testament of Swedishness is the ending, the final interaction between Salander and Blomkvist. It’s far from wordy, melodramatic, or emotional. Lisbeth finally thanks him, letting down her guard, and Micke just takes it for what it is.

A trilogy to be watched again and again, and owned.

“Doubt”

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I’ve been wanting to see this since I watched a Anatomy of a Scene episode on NYTimes.com. It was well worth the wait and viewing.

Three great actors – Seymour-Hoffman, Streep, and Adams – along with a silent fourth, the unassuming photograpy, make this film truly masterful. The exchanges between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius were just gripping and mesmerizing, watching one character take charge for a while, then the other conquer, then the same fall. From an actor’s perspective, there’s so much to learn from, watching Meryl Streep take in Seymour-Hoffman then pounce then retreat.

This film is jarring because you never really know. It doesn’t give it away early in a flashback and I’m so glad it didn’t resort to some childhood memory or some psychologizing. You’re left to interpret every scene and encounter; is he right? is she right? is she delusional? is he a liar? You never know until the very end when it hits you not like a hammer but like a needle. And you feel the fluid go up your veins and soon enough it hits your brain. It’s that subdued yet incredibly powerful.

The power of suggestion, of gossip, of suspicion is often much more powerful than flat out fact or evidence, shown in Aloysius’ exclamation: “But I have my certainty!” And as much the film is a quiet commentary about the state of the Catholic church and the distrust sowed by the paedophile scandals, this film is also about the real people caught up in it, without weepy dramatization or sentimentality.

The photography is measured and controlled and in a few places, takes inspiration from still photograpy and art. The image of Sister Aloysius swept up in the wind, after her conversation with Miller’s mother, is truly beautiful. Also, the lighting and set design in this film also had a powerful impact. The contrast between the warm reds in the boisterous dinner scene with the clergy and the staid beige and black of the nuns tells you something.

A film to be owned, watched again, and to learn from.

“August”

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There’s just not enough story and plot to really make this film stand out or even memorable. You get to the end of it, at the unexpected climax, and you can’t help but wonder if there’s more. It can’t be just that, can it?

“August” is flashy yet true to the dotcom era in the excessively empty tech jargon, the news bites, and the bravado of tech types at the time. Josh Hartnett is fairly solid and doesn’t rely on neither melodrama nor Swedish ice. He does manage to bring about some vulnerability in his performance. However, his supporting cast wasn’t that strong, barring his brother Joshua played by Adam Scott. More grit and substance was found in the family scenes and in the side stories of Josh’s relationships than the main story of LandShark.

Not appalling to watch, yet just not memorable or impressionable in any way. This film just needed more meat on its bones.