New biopic Dalida: Story of a diva's melancholy

Yasser Moheb, Friday 24 Mar 2017

Thirty years after the passing of Egyptian-Italian singer Dalida, French director Lisa Azuelos creates a film retracing the artist’s tumultuous life and tragic destiny

Dalida film (photo: film still)

Days after the release of French film Dalida in Egyptian cinemas, the biopic has sparked much debate. Some were fascinated, others indignant, but all fans of the Egyptian-Italian diva had something to say.


The film retraces Yolanda Gigliotti’s youth in Egypt and in Italy, and her later move to France where she found great success as a singer. A few months later, all of France sang Bambino, and the Egyptian star had come to be known as Dalida. A fascinating rise to fame, however, her imperfect love stories and personal tragedies led the singer to commit suicide.


“Life has become unbearable. Forgive me.” Such were the words that Dalida used to explain her self-destruction in 1987, at the age of 54. The director of the new biopic, Lisa Azuelos, wanted to create a film about Dalida the artist, but also about Yolanda, the woman who experienced a melancholic childhood and then a tormented love life.


The director told the press that she aimed to underline two particular aspects of Dalida’s life. The first is “a little girl from a modest background”, born in Egypt, even though she was from an Italian family, and who became a star. The other aspect is her love life, and her suicide attempts.


The film is in two parts: before and after her suicide attempt in 1967. The first part, which is slightly slower, sets the mood for the rest of the film, with flashbacks to Dalida’s childhood in the Cairo neighboorhood of Shubra; her experiences of the first big tragedy of her life, her parents' separation; followed by her father’s death; her early beginnings as a singer, and her first heartbreaks.


The second part focuses on increasingly dramatic events, retracing Dalida’s struggle to give meaning to her life and to drown her profound solitude in her passion for singing. The film shows some of the artist’s most beautiful songs, and the director makes great use of the lyrics to avoid superficial dialogue.


An ethereal aesthetic


Many local viewers found the film to be missing an essential element: the Egyptian star’s attachment to her country.


“The film is lacking in too many aspects to constitute a good biography,” said Nadia Ghannam, a student at the American University in Cairo, who attended a screening at Zawya arthouse cinema.


“It is quite ethereal and there is little detail. There is nothing about Dalida’s adolescence or her artistic initiation, aside from one mediocre scene in which she is shown with the violin professor. To understand an artist’s music, it is important to understand what brought them to the stage.”


The first part of the film does depict Dalida’s childhood in Egypt, her vision problems, her confusing relationship with her father, and the way she was mocked by her peers for wearing large glasses. However, the artistic beginnings of the future diva are not well elaborated.


“The depiction remains somewhat superficial, even if Dalida’s suffering is shown all throughout the film. It is just a compilation of the worst moments of her life, with no links,” commented Shokry Elshamy, a professor at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Art.


“The film opens in 1967, with her first suicide attempt, and we are then taken on a back-and-forth view of her life, in the form of flashbacks. Thankfully, we already know the story. It is as if the work aimed to empathise with Dalida rather than present her biography.”


Another of Dalida’s fans, Ahmed Islam, criticises the way her relationship to Egypt is shown in the film.


“Even when she returns to Egypt to film Youssef Chahine’s film The Sixth Day, it is completely devoid of emotion. Egypt merely serves as decoration.”


Aside from the use of actors who speak the Egyptian dialect, the setting is far too orientalist, showing souks, like in the One Thousand and One Nights, which bear no resemblance to early-20th century Shubra.


“It is slightly shocking for Egyptians to see Dalida go from one physical relation to the next, simply to spice up the film. It is simply a biopic in the form of a clip, incapable of surpassing this level to actually delve into the legend,” argues young pianist Nermine Adel.


In short, aside from Romanian model Sveva Alviti’s surprisingly good performance as Dalida, as well as strong performances from the other actors, the film leaves out many details and remains very superficial.


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