A sprawling, star-studded epic that spans all social classes in today's Cairo, "The Yacoubian Building" distinguishes itself both as the most expensive Egyptian film ever made and, despite its nearly three-hour running time, one of the most watchable. Making his feature bow, young helmer Marwan Hamed crafts a gripping drama out of Alaa Al Aswani's novel, an Arabic-language bestseller already in its 12th printing. Auds who enjoy marathon dramas such as "The Best of Youth" could find the same exotic fascination here, in a film that dramatizes controversial issues from adultery and political corruption to Islamic terrorism, not to mention the hitherto taboo topic of homosexuality.
There is a lot of story to compress from Al Aswani's novel, which occasionally has a fast-forward feel. Following the novel closely (only notable omission is a reference to president Mubarak), screenwriter Waheed Hamed interweaves multiple stories about the residents of the famous Yacoubian Building, constructed in downtown Cairo in 1937 by an Armenian to house the city's upper crust.
A rapid-fire introduction fills viewers in on the building's multicultural background and its changing tenants as the years go by. Today its spacious apartments are inhabited by the slightly down-at-heel well-to-do, while its rooftop laundry rooms have become home for entire poor families. It doesn't take much to make the connection between the building's decaying gentility and the state of the nation.
After hooking auds on the romantic problems of its main characters, film gradually expands into a panoramic portrait of what ails contemporary society. Aging playboy Zaki Pasha (Adel Imam) embodies the respectable, old-world gentleman. Kicked out of his shared apartment by his shrewish sister (Issad Younis), he moves into his "office," hitherto used as a bachelor pad for entertaining women.
His former love, French singer Christine (Yousra), sees how desperate he's become but can do nothing to help him. His path eventually overlaps that of one of the roof dwellers, Bosnaina (Hind Sabry), a pretty, disillusioned girl hired to clean his office. She has left her childhood love Taha (Mohamed Imam) when, frustrated in his attempts to move up in society, he turns to religious fanaticism.
In contrast, the religious piety of Haj Azzam (Nour El Sherif), who has risen from shoeshine boy to a rich businessman, is exposed as a sham hiding avarice and self-interest when he contracts a secret second marriage with an attractive widow (Somaya El Khashab). When he buys political office, he is in for more than he bargained for.
Another resident is Hatem Rasheed (Khaled El Sawy), the editor of a French-language newspaper, who falls in love with a well-built young soldier from Upper Egypt.
For a first-time director, Hamed (son of the film's well-known scriptwriter) displays remarkable control over a rambling story and a cast that includes the biggest names in Egyptian cinema.
Comic star Adel Imam is especially touching in a rare dramatic role as the bon vivant from another epoch; Sharif portrays his despicable businessman-politician with ambiguous gravity, and Yousra effortlessly stirs old emotional waters when she sings "La Vie en Rose."
Younger cast is equally persuasive: Sabry gives depth to the shopgirl-maid, while Mohamed Imam (son of Adel) leads auds down a chilling path from a college student who finds all doors shut because of his humble background, to training for Jihad in a desert camp.
The film's frank treatment of homosexuality, while revolutionary in the context of Egyptian cinema, is likely to be controversial for Western auds. Despite El Sawy's sensitive, rather ironic portrait of the gay Hatem, he is shown coercing the young soldier into what the latter considers an immoral and degrading relationship. Even more unsavory is a scene of gay rape in a police torture room, so humiliating it becomes the touchstone for Taha to embrace radical Islam.
Tech work, lead by cinematographer Sameh Selim's continually moving camera and racy crane shots, is of high quality throughout. Khaled Hammad's sweeping score gives the film an epic dimension, letting out the stops in key scenes like a frightening clash between Islamic students and the police.
Camera (color), Sameh Selim; editor, Khaled Marei; music, Khaled Hammad; production designer, Fawzy El Awamry; costume designer, Nahed Nasrallah; sound (Dolby/DTS Sound), Ibrahim El Dessouky. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 11, 2006. Running time: 172 MIN.
With: Issad Younis, Ahmed Bedeir, Ahmed Rateb, Somaya El Khashab, Khaled Saleh, Bassem Samra