Well-known director Henri Barakat came to film through some effort; a graduate of Cairo’s law faculty, his family had intended him to be a lawyer. He instead travelled to France to study cinema.
Barakat, who was born in 1941, went on to direct 86 films, among them celebrated classics like The Curlew’s Prayer (1959), The Sin (1965), A Man in Our House (1961), The Open Door (1963) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1951).
East German film critic Erika Richter described him as one of the most prominent directors of realism, but Barakat was known for directing romantic films.
He however preferred not to be pigeonholed, arguing that romantic films had chosen him, rather than the other way around.
“When I made my first film The Wanderer (1942) based on a story by the Russian short-story writer Anton Chekhov, I didn’t set my mind to be specialised in one genre and as a proof I followed this film with a comedy film, If I were Rich (1942), then with a detective film The Accused (1942),” the director once said.
“However, after a succession of films starting with The Heart has Only One Lover starring Sabah and Anwar Wagdi (1945), I began to realise that I became more inclined to direct romantic films. But what I didn’t realise was the reason behind this specific inclination? Perhaps because I love beauty and simplicity and the romantic stories provide this transparency in tackling the subject”.
Barakat made a number of memorable romance films: Passion Beach (1950) and Heart to Heart (1951) both starring Leila Mourad; Tryst (1956) and Nowadays Girls (1957), both starring Abdel-Halim Hafez; The Lost Love (1970) starring Soad Hosni; as well as seventeen films starring Faten Hamama.
However, the films that he was made famous for were not those which made his name in critical circles; those were realist pictures. But his realism was of a particular type, concerned with the individual at the expense of the community.
Our knowledge of the social environment in Barakat’s films is generated from his protagonists unlike director Salah Abu-Seif also known for realism, who treats his protagonists as part of the environment that he conveys on the screen.
In other words, Barakat focused on the impact of the environment on his protagonists rather than the details of this environment. Thus, the actors’ emotions and expressions have supreme importance, more that their panoramic movement in the film’s setting, as was the case with Salah Abu-Seif. That’s what distinguishes Barakat and makes him stand out for what can be called lyrical realism.
For instance, in The Curlew’s Prayer, adapted from a novel by Taha Hussein, Barakat tackles the nature of social relations governing Upper Egyptian society and the inherited customs controlling these relations.
All this was seen through the face of Amna – the film’s protagonist – and her conflicting feelings towards those surrounding her, including fear, compassion, love, hatred, frailty and vengeance; and also through her reactions to what is happening and her swaying between objection and succumbing, desire and restraint, determination and retraction.
The same can be said about The Sin which was adapted from a novel by Youssef Idris and also starred Faten Hamama as its leading lady.
The difference between the two films lies in the nature of the protagonist’s suffering, through which Barakat presented, in The Sin, a realistic image of the migrant workers’ tragedy in the Egyptian countryside before the 1952 revolution.
If Barakat’s special realism has led him to the Egyptian countryside in The Curlew’s Prayer and The Sin, it drove him to portray the city’s society members in A Man in Our House and The Open Door.
In the former, which was adapted from a novel by Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, Barakat presented the national struggle against the British occupation and its lackeys via a young man, Ibrahim, who attempted the assassination of the prime minister and went into hiding in the house of an ordinary family that had nothing to do with politics.
Later events reveal that this family’s members aren’t any less patriotic than the young man who took shelter in their home. As for The Open Door, which was adapted from a novel by Latifa Al-Zayyat, Barakat displayed the transformations caused by the 1952 revolution on the Egyptian urban society through a young middle-class woman’s search for freedom.
The Open Door wasn’t Barakat’s only film that dealt with women’s issues; many of his other films also explored the same ideas. Maybe this was because Barakat’s favourite star was Faten Hamama, and therefore her protagonists were given a lot of screen time.
On the other hand, it may be because several of his films were adapted from female authors; as well as The Open Door, there was No Consolation to Women by Katia Thabet and The Night Fatma was Arrested by Sakina Fouad. And there is also the fact that Barakat has relied in his films on adaptations from writers known for supporting women’s issue, like Ihsan Abdel-Quddous for example.
What’s striking is that Barakat, who made masterpieces before the 1970s, slipped into low-grade commercial cinema in his last twenty years of his life. He directed films such as Soldier Shabarawy, Hassan Bey the Poor Man (both in 1982) and Nawwara and the Monster (1987).
He did, however, mount a strong defence of his choices. “What should I do if this was the prevailing current in cinema nowadays? It is unreasonable that I should stay without work, it is true that in order to work I made some concessions, but they have never stooped to lowliness. I didn’t make a film which I felt ashamed of,” he said.
The big-name director did however decide to retire after directing An Investigation with a Citizen (1993). He passed away on 26 May 1997 at the age of 83.
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture