In one scene in La Moakhza (Excuse My French), director Amr Salama’s third and latest feature film, a character – a figure of authority – gives a seemingly endless lecture on the strong bonds connecting Muslims and Christians in Egypt, their shared history of unity and struggle.
Egypt has had no shortage of hostility between citizens of different faiths, complete with hollow and redundant statements of solidarity that have even worked their way into the very works of art that attempt to address the problem. Salama, however, employs the overused clichés sarcastically in his fresh, light-hearted screenplay, highlighting their futility in solving pre-existing problems and tackling religious discrimination. The approach is creative and untraditional.
Hany (a stunning performance from Ahmed Dash) is a 14-year-old boy from an upper-class Christian family in Cairo. He leads a happy, sheltered life until his father suddenly dies, forcing him to face brand-new realities. For financial reasons, his mother (Kenda Alloush) moves him from the prestigious international school where he was widely popular for his wit and intellect, to a shabby public school where he has a very hard time getting along with his fellow students. When a misunderstanding leads the teachers and students in his new school to think he is a Muslim, Hany decides not to correct them.
The boy struggles to fit in and at the same time stay true to his faith and the memory of his father, to the person that he actually is. Hany is an outsider longing for acceptance. It's not just his religion that separates him – his affluent social background, his taste in music as well as his jokes, which no one seems to understand, don't help him much, either. It is here that La Moakhza achieves its social significance. The portrayal of Hany's difficulties in being accepted offer a solid commentary on how Egyptian society imposes such overwhelming pressure to conform.
However, Hany finds a friend in Momen (Moaz Nabil), a mischievous kid who shares a seat with him in school and who eventually helps him on his quest to impress his classmates. Hailed by many as the film’s finest, most honest performance, Nabil is brilliant as Hany’s sidekick. The scenes with the two actors together provide some of La Moakhza’s most humorous and entertaining moments, and their relationship can be considered as the line that sets the tone for the whole story.
Confusion and discomfort are central to Hany’s journey of adaptation after his father’s death and his mother's subsequent bouts of grief. Alloush’s performance as his mother, however, is perhaps one of the film’s weaknesses. Her character, although supposedly complex and multi-layered, comes off dry and unmoving. Her alternation between aloofness and aggressiveness is often merely irritating, rather than stimulating or inducive of curiosity, and the motives behind her behaviour are almost always unfathomable.
But La Moakhza is spotted with remarkable characters, some of them quite memorable despite very little screen time - the English and PE teachers, for example, are both marginal characters, but Salama gives them peculiar and distinctive mannerisms, a style embodied most notably by American director Wes Anderson, whose influence on Salama is apparent from as early as the film’s opening sequence.
Against a smoothly-flowing narration that is rich with specifics, Salama (who also wrote the film) introduces Hany and his family in a comical, exaggeratedly structured setting that is evocative of Anderson’s representation of his characters in films like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Anderson’s devotion to unusual particularities and quirks is also conjured in La Moakhza, namely in details like a dead tortoise frozen inside an ice cube and a jar of Riesen chocolates that Hany prefers to leave untouched.
However, La Moakhza fails to maintain the same idiosyncratic mode of storytelling until the end. An air of seriousness permeates the film's final third – the scenes feel too carefully set-up and lacking in ease and spontaneity to be believable, and the result is a sense of contrived realism that is blatantly out of sync with the original spirit of the film.
Highly commendable, though, is Salama’s ability to emphasize the brutal contrast between Hany’s private and public worlds. In his home, blue is the dominant colour – spacious, tranquil and familiar. At school, the scenes take on a yellowish hue – you can almost smell the dust, and it is constant mayhem. Also impressive is the naturalness of the children’s performances in the classroom, exuding just the right mixture of adolescent audacity and boyish charm. The dialogue between them – the insults, the advice, the one-liners – is very accurate, delightfully Egyptian.
Salama, who previously wrote and directed Zai El Naharda (On a Day like Today, 2008) and Asmaa (2011), first began writing La Moakhza in 2009. The film was rejected by the censorship board more than three times before Salama was finally allowed to start shooting. In a 2012 interview, Salama recounted how the film was first refused by the censors on grounds that it "exaggerated" the problem of religious discrimination, which, according to the board, didn't even exist in Egypt. It was even suggested that a film like La Moakhza could trigger sectarianism. Salama went ahead and made the changes required by the board, but the film was once again rejected, this time on charges of "ruining the reputation of the Egyptian educational system." It wasn’t until mid 2013 that Salama finally started filming. The result is a movie about not giving up, by a very determined director, and if ticket sales are any indication, the moral of the story is that persistence pays off: La Moakhza currently sits at the top of the Egyptian box office, having pulled in LE1.9 million in just three weeks.
Despite its flaws, La Moakhza is further proof that Amr Salama is among the country’s most hard-working and unyielding filmmakers, well-versed in the art of cinema and possessing that rare ability to make films that are both commercially and critically acclaimed.