Over the past 10 years, Egyptians had to deal with security issues many times, which made the authorities issue curfew regulations keeping people indoors mainly for the night for example. This happened, for example, during the 25 January Revolution in 2011 when a curfew was declared during the massive demonstrations of 28 January, the Friday of Rage, though protesters, notably in Tahrir Square, did not comply with these regulations. The second curfew was much more tightly enforced, and it was declared after security forces stormed the two camps set up by supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi in Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda Square on 14 August 2013.
Amir Ramses’s latest film Curfew is set during these tight security measures. Although the title suggests that it might contain a political message, the script only mentions politics by way of a general comment made by the main characters about the security situation on the streets on two occasions.
The film, also written by Ramses, opens with the release of Faten (Elham Shahin) from prison in autumn 2013. The first couple of scenes show Faten’s daughter Laila (Amina Khalil) and her husband Hassan (Ahmed Magdi) receiving Faten at the prison, but Ramses intentionally creates some confusion as a means to capture the audience’s attention. He delays revealing the primary information about the main characters’ identity, relationship and background. The first confrontation between Faten and Laila shows that the Laila has negative feelings for her mother.
Ramses delves into Faten’s inner confusion as she enters her apartment, where she murdered her husband 20 years ago. On the other hand the script gradually reveals the incident through flashbacks. Using this technique helps let the audience complete the picture and slowly understand what pushed the main character to commit this crime.
In one conversation between Laila and Faten, the daughter angrily asks her mother what she had done, as a child, to deserve to lose both her parents and become without family immediately. She wants an answer to the reason behind that crime, but Faten remains silent, insisting on not revealing the truth to her daughter until the end of the film.
Perhaps what is remarkable about this film is not so much the main plot and the heroes, but rather the secondary characters who possess rather more human depth rather than the main characters.
Faten’s neighbour Yahia Shokry Murad (played by Kamel El Basha, the Palestinian actor who won the 2017 Venice best actor award for his role in Ziad Doueiri’s Insult), is an alcoholic former teacher who listens to Abdel-Halim Hafez all the time, demonstrating his romantic personality. He suffers from diabetes which cost him a foot, and at the end of the film it is implied that he kills himself. He seems to be in love with Faten, who is seen thanking him for not revealing her secret. One rumour about the murder has it that it took place after the husband caught them cheating on him, and that is why no one talks to Yahia. (Though his Yahia is otherwise unrelated, Ramses, whose career began as an assistant to Youssef Chahine for five years, names the character after Chahine’s alter ego in his autobiographical films, Yahia Shokry Murad, by way of a tribute.)
Another neighbour of Faten’s is Fawzia or Om Salama (Arfa Abdel-Rasoul) who is always fighting with her pet cat Shehata. Everyone is convinced that she has lost track of time and that is why she keeps forgetting things, but she confesses to Faten that she fakes her dementia to make people laugh. “If they laugh they will not forget you” she says. She also says she understands why Faten killed her husband.
But what is the dynamic underlying the action? The script shows that Faten, who seems very tender and helpless, has a powerful side to her personality. When she finds out that Sosta (Mahmoud Al-Leithi), a thug and tuk tuk driver who has been holding a party on the roof of the building since the start of the curfew, Faten insists on putting a stop to it. When she courageously threatens him, and later when she begs him to drive them to the hospital after Laila’s daughter Donia falls suddenly ill, Laila develops positive feelings for her.
Only at the end does it become clear that Faten killed her husband because he was sexually abusing Laila. This film is not about abuse and murder, however, so much as the price a woman pays for protecting her daughter. That is why, in the flashback when the abuse occurs and the murder is committed, Laila and her father are watching a scene from a classic play, Ana Fein Wenty Fein (Where am I, and where are you) in which the great comedian Fouad Al-Mohandess sings to his daughter to comfort her before leaving, as he explains to her, “to hunt down the wolf”. Likewise Faten, who leaves after hunting down the wolf who molests her daughter.
The film is set in a middle class neighborhood in a building from the beginning of the 20th century, which adds to the beauty of the picture as a whole especially the building interiors: the stairs and the apartment doors. It also helps to eliminate economic considerations as a factor in crime, which results rather from psychological ruin.
The film premiered at the official competition of the Cairo International Film Festival last December, and earned Shahin the best actress award. It is now being screened on the OSN TV network.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly