Existential journey

Soha Hesham
Tuesday 6 Feb 2024

In her second collaboration with filmmaker Hani Khalifa, writes Soha Hesham, actress Mona Zaki addresses a delicate issue


Last year, in her latest Ramadan TV series Taht Al-Wessaya (Under Custodianship), directed by Mohamed Shakir Khodeir, Mona Zaki gave a poignant performance. Perhaps closer to the hearts of Egyptian society than ever before, her role embodied a widespread issue with which viewers connected deeply. It was felt that she had reached her maturity as an actress. But Zaki’s latest appearance on the silver screen — in Ahmed Nader Galal’s action flick Al-Ankabout (The Spider), with Ahmed Al-Saqqa and Dhafer Al-Abdeen — was an artistic disappointment, being the same kind of action being made since the late 1990s without an engaging storyline.

This is not the case with Rehla 404 (Trip 404), directed by Hani Khalifa in his first collaboration with Zaki in 21 years. Back in 2003, Zaki appeared in Khalifa’s Sahar Al-Layali (Sleepless Nights, 2003) alongside Sherif Mounir, Fathi Abdel-Wahab and Hanan Turk. This was regarded as an audacious film at a time when the industry was still dominated by the conservative ethic of “clean cinema”. It dealt with relationships between married and unmarried couples, tackling sensitive social, religious and existential issues.

Rehla 404 is a dialogue-dominated film. The screenplay by Mohamed Ragaa focuses on the internal conflicts of Ghada Said (Mona Zaki), whose existential crisis begins when she loses her virginity to the only man she has loved, Tarek Abdel-Hamid (Mohamed Mamdouh). It was through this incident that she crossed paths with Shahira (Sherine Reda), a pimp who hosts high-class adult parties at which Ghada eventually becomes a prostitute. As for the other Tarek (Mohamed Farrag), he is an addict to whom she was briefly married. All this information is background revealed through dialogue.  

The film opens with Ghada’s intention to go to the Hajj when she receives a phone call from a tour company during a work meeting with real estate clients. Though she wears the hijab, Ghada’s overall demeanor and body language is at odds with piety.

One of the many dramatic lines of the film is Ghada’s confused relationship with her mother (Arfa Abdel-Rassoul), also revealed in a phone call that relays the fact that they are estranged; her mother is asking her for money but Ghada has been ignoring her requests. But that doesn’t stop the mother, who stalks her daughter, following her to her workplace and making a scene then being hit by a car while attempting to follow Ghada across the street.

While the mother is at the hospital Ghada pretends she doesn’t know her, but once she steps out she frets over how to obtain the large sum of money required for her treatment, and whether to have her transferred to a state hospital.

Ghada starts a desperate journey to collect the money for her mother’s operation. She tries to sell her car but in vain, so she decides to call Shahira who welcomes her and offers to write her a check. But already Shahira is pressuring her to come back to work, accusing her of faking her repentance, while Ghada tries to stand her ground. Finally, when Shahira is offended by Ghada’s attitude, she makes a deal with her: she will give her the check if she agrees to spend the night with one important person who likes her.

Desperate never to go back to her life with Shahira, Ghada starts searching for other possibilities. She locates Tarek Abdel Halim, reminding him of how he left her and went on with his life, marrying a colleague of theirs and now controlling her family business. Ghada also ends up confronting the other Tarek, who married her knowing about her work with Shahira as revenge against his own mother. Tarek describes her as selfish and self-centered when she fails to listen to him sympathetically even for a few minutes and is worried about his lawyer being late with the money. It eventually turns out Tarek is the important person Shahira referred to.

Led by Khalifa, the acting performances are strong with much of the film relying on rhythm and body language. The screenplay lacks clarity regarding the direction it intends to take Ghada’s character, and this was strikingly evident in the scene when she goes to the bar to meet a dubious buyer interested in the piece of land she is attempting to sell. Ghada’s fascination with the vibrant atmosphere becomes apparent as her gaze fixes on the dancers and the allure of alcohol, harmonising subtly with the rhythmic beats of the tabla played by Hisham, the broker who also harbors desires for her. Amid all these conflicting emotions, Ghada is suppressing her inner turmoil.

In this complex exploration of the concept of prostitution in all its forms, Ghada’s complicated life and her confused relationships take a toll when Hisham deceives her, selling the piece of land and cruelly depriving Ghada of her rightful commission with the assistance of his accomplice in a rather contemptible maneuver…

The film combines multiple dramatic storylines and intricately woven details, perhaps more than necessary, that invite a range of readings. However, not all these details lead to different meanings; most suggest the same interpretation, which may work against the film rather than in its favour. Dramatic threads involving the old lover Tarek, the ex-husband Tarek, Yasser (Khaled El-Sawi), and a woman she accidentally saves outside her apartment door in the tourism company building, who enters her room and steals her gold but later returns it could have been condensed. Religious preaching met with a philosophical response, repeated in several confrontations between her and Khalid and Shahira, was also excessive and unnecessary.

The ending of the film is somehow incompatible with this harsh journey of doubt and fear with all the religious and moral confusion and uncertainty that haunts the heroine throughout the film. It is as if everything is resolved once her material problems are solved and she receives an apology from Tarek, her former lover, for what he did to her.  




* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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