Cave of thrones

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 25 Jun 2024

Hani Mustafa saw the new big-budget Eid film, Ahl Al-Kahf

Ahl Al-Kahf

 

The legend of the Seven Sleepers in both Christianity and Islam (known in the Quran as Ashab Al-Kahf or “The Companions of the Cave”) inspired writers and artists on several occasions in the past. In 1933 the great Egyptian dramatist Tawfik Al-Hakim published his masterpiece Ahl Al-Kahf, a play later translated into many languages. It was first staged two years later, directed by Zaki Tolaymat. Al-Hakim, who was known for the philosophical depth of his nonetheless accessible works, used the story to explore concepts of faith, love and time.

Surah Al-Kahf doesn’t specify a number of sleepers: Some will say concerning them: “They were three and their dog, the fourth”; and some will say: “They were five, and their dog, the sixth”,  all this being merely guesswork; and still others will say: “They were seven, and their dog, the eighth.” Say: “My Lord knows their number best.” (18-22). For dramatic purposes, Al-Hakim used only three characters: Mishilinia and Marnoush, two ministers of King Dikiyanus who lived in 250 AD, and an ordinary shepherd named Yamlikha with his dog Qatmer. The play focuses on the tragedy of the main characters as they realise they have been asleep in the cave for 300 years. Everything has changed in the meantime. Marnoush finds out his son died in his sixties. Mishlinia locates his beloved Briska but it is not the same person, merely a princess named after her. As they find themselves unable to live in this new world, the three characters eventually return to the cave.

The latest version of the story of the Seven Sleepers was a big production film screened during Eid Al-Adha, also titled Ahl Al-Kahf. Though based on Al-Hakim’s play, the script saw radical changes by screenwriter Ayman Bahgat Qamar and director Amr Arafa. The film opens with an old Christian monk (Ahmed Bedir) teaching a group of students the stories of the saints at the beginning of the seventh century. The Roman Empire has become a Christian state, but this monk is targeted by the authorities, and he tells his students that his lecture on the Seven Sleepers will be his last. This introductory scene felt banal, recalling national television educational programmes.

The story starts in Rome in 250 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Decius (Mustafa Fahmi), who is known for his brutality towards Christians. One of the first scenes is a battle between the Roman army and Germanic attackers, not essential to the storyline but intended to capture the attention of the younger audience. The scene shows Sabil (Khaled Al-Nabawy), the commander of the emperor’s eastern army, and his friend Paula (Mohamed Mamdouh), the commander of the emperor’s northern army as they fight bravely against the Germanic intruders. The battle is very carefully directed and edited using a combination of rough cuts, slow motion and drone shots, but some use of graphics made it look like animation footage in parts. It is obvious to any viewer that Arafa was inspired by the battles in Game of Thrones. This scene shows how the two commanders are the best army leaders in the Roman Empire, which gives the audience an idea of how devastated Decius will be when they break their imperial vows become Christians. Qamar added two other scenes just to emphasise this idea. When the emperor receives his two victorious commanders, Paula tells Decius he doesn’t trust non-Romans, referring to Sabil, because he has Arab origins. In the next scene the two commanders are secretly attending a Christian service, and Paula’s racist comment turns out to be a cover. The tragedy begins when Sabil writes a love letter to his beloved princess Briska (Ghada Adel), asking Paula to convey it to her through his wife Tansim (Reem Mustafa), who is Briska’s maid of honour, But the letter falls into the hands of the emperor’s magistrate, Armoush (Sabry Fawaz) who is a Jew jealous of the two commanders.

Of course the filmmaker and the scriptwriter have every right to add or delete characters or events but the way they did so raises questions. Regarding the female main character Briska, for example, why is the princess an adopted daughter of the emperor’s? On the other hand, they created a very shallow villain in the emperor’s son who hates Briska and even harasses her. None of this affects the drama. The real evil act against Sabil, Paula and Briska is undertaken by another character, Armoush. While, in the play, the change of the protagonists’ fate happens by coincidence because love makes one of the characters incautious and the king finds the letter that shows the true belief of his daughter and two ministers.

While there are three companions of the cave and a dog in the play, the filmmaker and the writer added three more characters and a baby. These include Nour and Nar (Mohamed Farrag), Christian twins who perform a magic show for the children at the market. Their backstory adds nothing to the film. They were children when the emperor’s soldiers attacked their home and slaughtered their father in front of their eyes. Qamar tried to add a few intelligent lines to the continuous arguments between the twins as if they resemble the two sides of a human character, and perhaps that is why their name was Nour (light) and Nar (fire). The third character is a very old man called Khashab (Rashwan Tawfik), who is hunted by the soldiers with his pregnant daughter (Hagar Ahmed) whose husband is killed for being Christian. The daughter dies while giving birth, but the baby remains.

These six human beings are led by the shepherd Milikha (Ahmed Eid) to hide from the emperor’s soldiers in the cave. Milikha does not have a backstory but he is a humorous Christian shepherd who loves his sheep and his dog Qatmeer. However, in the play he has a very important role as he comes close to the ascetic ideal.

The symbolism of using a child in the structure of the drama is a burden to the flow of the story because he is left with the old man while the others are taken by the Christian emperor (Bayoumi Foad) after 300 years. Perhaps he is intended as a gesture of hope, which is sentimental. Such old-fashioned symbolism is even weaker at the end when the monk who is supposedly telling the whole story, just before he is arrested, tells his students that he is the child that was among the sleepers, whom they give to Bersika before they lock themselves in the cave.

The directing and the editing are adequate in the battle and action scenes, but along with the script the acting is this film’s downfall. Al-Nabawy, Farrag, Mamdouh, and Eid all give very weak performances, while other actors over-perform their roles. Sabry Fawwaz, for example, tries to emulate the Irish actor Aidan Gillen in his acclaimed performance as Petyr Baelish in Game Of Thrones, but he only manages a surface resemblance that exposes the whole film’s derivative and superficial approach.

 


* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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