'Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim'

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Acu­ri­ous buddy-road movie with sur­re­al­ist touches, cel­e­brated short- firm di­rec­tor Sherif El Bendary's fea­ture de­but brings to­gether dis­parate el­e­ments for an un­ex­pect­edly warm-hearted fi­nale that as­serts the pri­macy of love in what­ever form it may take. Au­di­ences will likely spend at least half the view­ing time try­ing to work out the metaphors, only to con­clude that they're think­ing too hard: "Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim" is per­haps most sur­pris­ing be­cause it wants to be taken straight, even if it is about a man in love with a goat, and another tor­mented by phan­tom sounds. Bal­anced in that nether­re­gion be­tween main­stream and art house, the film has oc­ca­sional mis­steps but ul­ti­mately projects a re­fresh­ing de­gree of guile­less­ness, and could nicely slot into fes­ti­val pro­grams in need of more up­beat fare.

El Bendary's shorts and medium-length doc­u­men­tary "On the Road to Down­town" had a vis­i­ble pres­ence on the fes­ti­val scene, and "Ali" re­ceived grants from a num­ber of film funds (Fi­nal Cut in Venice, Sanad, En­jaaz, etc.). Based on an un­pub­lished story by fel­low di­rec­tor Ibrahim El Batout ("Win­ter of Dis­con­tent") and fleshed out by ris­ing screen­writer Ahmed Amer, "Ali" makes re­mark­ably few po­lit­i­cal state­ments, but per­haps it's not too much of an over-read­ing to spec­u­late that its apo­lit­i­cal stance is it­self a re­ac­tion to Egypt's in­creas­ingly re­pres­sive mea­sures. Rather than go­ing the usual route of us­ing metaphor to obliquely com­ment on the so­ci­ety, the film­mak­ers look in­ward, sug­gest­ing that over­com­ing per­sonal demons through love is the only way Egyp­tians can cur­rently work to­wards a more eq­ui­table so­ci­ety.

A nicely shot open­ing in­tro­duces a large pink teddy bear, car­ried by Ali (Ali Sobhy, win­ner of the best ac­tor award in Dubai). He's bring­ing the stuffed an­i­mal to his girl­friend Nada, but he and friend Ka­mata (Osama Abo El-Ata) are stopped by a nasty cop (Asser Yassin in a fun cameo ap­pear­ance) who dis­em­bow­els the bear while search­ing for sus­pected drugs, ig­nor­ing cries of help from an ab­ducted woman in a speed­ing car. Once Ali and Ka­mata are re­leased, the two friends look to res­cue the woman, who turns out to be a pros­ti­tute named Nour, real name Sabah (Na­hed El Se­bai).

It's un­clear why the script both­ers with this poorly in­te­grated, un­sat­is­fac­tory side plot, though pre­sum­ably El Bendary and Amer felt the need for a fe­male char­ac­ter, as well as an ad­di­tional ex­am­ple of non­tra­di­tional love, along the lines of Don Quixote (in the more San­cho Panza guise of Ka­mata) and Dul­cinea. The cop's pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the teddy bear rather than the ab­ducted woman makes a state­ment about po­lice pri­or­i­ties, yet the cri­tique makes barely a dent. For­tu­nately, at­ten­tion quickly re­turns to Ali and his love Nada, who's not ex­actly a tra­di­tional girl­friend: She's a goat-a very sweet, white goat, but still a goat, whom he treats as he would a hu­man com­pan­ion. Ali's mother Nusa (Salwa Mo­hamed Aly, one of Egyp­tian cin­ema's un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated gems) is fed up and takes her son to a spiritual healer, who tells him to throw a stone into each of Egypt's three bod­ies of wa­ter: Nile, Mediter­ranean, and Red Sea. Also at the healer's is Ibrahim (Ahmed Magdy) a sound en­gi­neer tor­mented by phan­tom screeches, which sound like high-pitched mi­cro­phone feed­back. It's a fam­ily ail­ment: His mother killed her­self be­cause of it, and his grand­fa­ther made him­self deaf to es­cape the noise. Ibrahim tries to record the sound in or­der to ex­or­cise it, but he fails, and in des­per­a­tion seeks out the same witch doc­tor as Ali. So be­gins the road movie part of the film, in which this un­likely duo, of vastly dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ments, try to find in­ner peace. The story's ab­sur­dist el­e­ments must come from some­where, and El Bendary has spo­ken of the char­ac­ters' neu­roses spring­ing from Cairo's chaotic as­sault on its res­i­dents' sen­si­bil­i­ties. The noise in Ibrahim's head can be taken as the ca­cophonous pres­sures of the me­trop­o­lis, and Ali's at­tach­ment to the goat as a re­sponse to the city's ten­dency to alien­ate peo­ple from those around them. That view­ers ac­cept Ali's pro­found love for Nada-and even find it touch­ing at the end-tes­ti­fies to the di­rec­tor's skill as well as ac­tor Sobhy's abil­ity to win over au­di­ences with a nu­anced per­for­mance that com­bines an all-out charm as­sault with sur­pris­ing depth.

The film has in­ter­mit­tent bal­ance prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly around scenes with Sabah the pros­ti­tute. When Ali and Ka­mata res­cue her from a gang of nasty clients, they douse the car with ac­cel­er­ant and set it alight with the per­pe­tra­tors still in­side-an ex­ces­sive ac­tion out of keep­ing with Ali and Ka­mata's char­ac­ters. Rapid edit­ing dur­ing Ibrahim's tor­ments feels un­gainly, though for the most part the cam­er­a­work has a smooth, sat­is­fy­ing sense of move­ment.

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