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Al-ard (The Land)

Posted by martinteller on July 14, 2012

In a 1930’s Egyptian village, the peasants are told by the government that they can irrigate their crops for only 5 days instead of the customary ten.  They attempt to appeal to the Prime Minister, but the man they choose as their representative is bamboozled into being a stooge for the powerful Mahmoud Bey.  The bey has the village mayor in his pocket, and the change in the irrigation schedule is merely part of a scheme to snatch their land away so he can build a road to his palace.  The peasants struggle to meet their most basic economic needs — struggle against the corrupt government, the savage police, and amongst themselves.

Chahine’s 1969 adaptation of Sharqawi’s popular novel “The Earth” has an epic feel to it, despite clocking in at just over two hours.  Packed with major characters, it’s a little hard to follow at first.  There’s a lot of people to keep track of.  Abu Swelem (Mahmoud El-Meliguy), who emerges as a leader.  His beautiful daughter Wasifa (Nagwa Ibrahim), once eager to flee to the big city of Cairo, now willing to fight alongside the men.  One of her many suitors, Abd El-Hadi (Ezzat El Alaili), a fierce and principled warriors.  Another suitor, Mohammad Effendi (Hamdy Ahmed), educated but weak and gullible.  There are at least half a dozen other major characters who have significant roles in the events that unfold, including a young boy who seems to start out as a key figure but disappears early on, never to be seen again.  Compounding the confusion are two different Sheikhs (one supportive but ultimately corruptible, the other a bastard from the get-go).  And the events themselves are difficult to grasp at times.  But eventually, as one learns who all the players are and their relations to each other, it all becomes clear enough.  

Even when trying to keep up, I was taken with the engaging grip of the film.  The spirit of revolution against corrupt forces recalls other rebellion-minded films like Salvatore Giuliano or Army of Shadows, or any number of the classic Soviet propaganda films.  As in Earth, those doing the dirty work with their hands in the land are shown to be the purest of spirit.  But — although there is a bit of didacticism to the film — the characterizations aren’t entirely black and white, and the power of the people isn’t always power enough.  This is a very fine group of actors, where the only subpar performances are the two most blatantly rotten characters.  Once you sort out who’s who, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in their lives.  The cinematography is also quite strong, with much of the same expressive and exciting camera movement that graces Cairo Station.  It doesn’t have that film’s noirish edge, but instead uses color photography beautifully to create striking images.

It’s a movie that perhaps tries to do too much, with differing threads that are political, dramatic, romantic and even a bit of comedy (a very little bit).  But it manages to pull everything together into a very compelling, artful and often brutal film.  I can’t pretend to understand all the political nuances, but as a voice for the downtrodden and exploited, it rings strong and clear.  Rating: Very Good (84)


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