It’s a sort of Citizen Kane of Egyptian cinema, a technical masterpiece with a formidable reputation and an unhurried pace.
Until yesterday I had only seen short scenes of Shady Abdel Salam’s Al-Mummia (The Mummy, aka The Night of Counting the Years, 1970). It was his first try as a director, and his only feature film. A cinematic renaissance man, he also wrote its script and designed its set and costumes.
The movie, in which a Shakespearian-style saga between good and evil emerges through the story of a confused young man trapped in a struggle with his uncle, has an unusual sluggishness. It is set in 1881, when artifacts from a secret ancient tomb inside a cave at Al-Deir Al-Bahari in old Thebes, containing 40 mummies, appeared on the black market.
It opens with Wanis (Ahmed Marei) and his older brother (Ahmed Hegazy) standing in reverence watching the body of their father Selim being laid to rest. It’s a long, morbid scene dominated by black, the ominous sound of harsh desert winds combined with at times almost deafening wails of grieving women.
The brothers are now the masters of the mountain-dwelling Horabaat tribe, and are let in on its dark secret. They come from a long line of scavengers living off the treasures of their ancestors buried in the heart of the mountain. They are both appalled at the sight of their uncle beheading a mummy to free a golden necklace.
“What is that secret that has made me fearful… what is that secret… Knowing it is a sin and not knowing it is an even bigger sin,” says Wanis in a monologue to himself.
Soon the older brother is killed and his body discarded in the Nile. The heavy secret along with the future of the tribe falls onto the shoulders of Wanis, a quiet and confused young man, the new master of his people, torn between their future and a moral obligation toward his ancestors.
Then the effendis appear on the Horabaat’s deserted shores, rich archeologists from the antiquities department who appear every year looking for the ancient tombs. They are hated yet feared by the tribe, and welcomed by the mountain guards they work with. The same violent winds bring Ayoub (Shafiq Noureddin), the black-market trader, and Murad (Mohamed Babih), Ayoub’s little shifty helper who makes a living smuggling relics and running a brothel. He is an evil intruder with a non-native complexion and an off-putting accent, a character that plays on mainstream xenophobic fears.
“You who left, you will return / You who slept, you will awake / You who passed away, you will be resurrected.”
Abdel Salam starts the film with this verse from the ancient book of the dead, a prayer to ensure the deceased remembers his name, as a nameless soul will linger on for eternity. The shooting of The Mummy started three months after the 1967 Naksa, an era of regret and turmoil. It’s a Ministry of Culture production — perhaps part of a state campaign to lift morale through a reminder of the nation’s ancient glory — and was produced by Roberto Rossellini, who had been in Egypt that year for part of a TV series he made about the history of mankind.
“I wanted to express myself and describe the persona of the Egyptian man who once he regains his ancient origins will get back up again,” said Abdel Salam about The Mummy.
It apparently took him three years to write the impeccably beautiful script in formal Arabic. Despite Wanis’ many moments of suffocating silence, when he does speak it is in melancholic poetry. His monologues are tortured and sad, but his dialogues with Murad are angry and strong.
Abdel Salam had worked on many historical blockbusters as a costume and set designer, among them Youssef Chahine’s Al-Nasser Salah Eddin (1963), Enrico Bomba and Andrew Marton’s Wa Islamah (Oh Islam, 1963), Niazi Mostafa’s Rabia al-Adawiyya (1963) and Hassan al-Eman’s Shafiqa al-Qebteya (Shafiqa the Copt, 1962).
For The Mummy, he created uniforms for each side. The tribesmen wear daunting black robes and the archeologists and their helpers are dressed in vibrant, blinding white. The two characters who defy the pattern are Ayoub and Murad; their foreign attire separate them from the two quarreling parties. Ayoub approaches the shores of Horabaat in a marvelous silk dress and furry hat, carried by two helpers.
The director of photography, Abdel Aziz Fahmy, makes each frame an artwork with his slow camera movements. The lighting is phenomenal: the moonlight, its reflection on water, the light of the torches, the dark tomb interior and the graveyard at night. All the scenes have a real feel, rare in a time when Egyptian cinema was still figuring out color movies.
Abdel Salam took his team to the location of the real-life story: the desert of Luxor near the Qarnah village. Most of the filming took place outdoors, amid the sand, the mountain and the cone-shaped tombs of the tribe. The mud houses look sinister from the inside, like the stone dwellings of medieval England, with rude walls, dim light and basic furniture.
The music by Mario Nascimbene, one of the best-known Italian film soundtrack composers (he made the music for the American 1958 blockbuster The Vikings), is fittingly wild. It sounds like an orchestra jamming in the middle of the desert, and its tunes and sounds emerge through the whistling wind and the screams of the wailing women.
The movie was restored in 2010 through an international collaboration that included Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. Abdel Salem’s other planned feature film was an ambitious telling of the story of Akhneton, but it never got made. He did make various other films though, including an almost wordless documentary about the cultural scene in Egypt, Afaq (Horizons, 1972).