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Al-Asleyeen: When big brother meets a film about mid-life ennui

The second collaboration from director Marwan Hamed and writer Ahmed Mourad after psychology-themed thriller The Blue Elephant (2014), AlAsleyeen (The Originals) is a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of exercise. But it’s also one that shows that there’s a softer, funnier side to the pair, beyond drugs and occultish shenanigans.

Al-Asleyeen centers around Samir, played by 49-year-old Maged al-Kedwany (Hepta, Decor). Samir is the everyman, the breadwinner, living life by the book and doing right by his family. His success is the safe, respectable kind we’re taught to aspire to by bourgeois society: He gets up every day at 6 am, puts on a suit and heads off to his managerial job at a bank, grabbing a Starbucks on the way. His shopaholic wife would rather go under the knife than go to the gym, and their two picture-perfect yet surly teens are ensconced behind their respective screens.

This rote upper-middle-class existence gets thrown for a loop when an iPhone packed with surveillance footage of the family’s most private moments shows up at their doorstep. At first reluctant to cooperate with the shadowy voice on the phone, Samir rushes into the arms of Al-Asleyeen when he’s suddenly let go from his job and left with no other recourse to finance his family’s demands.

Fronted by a shady character played by ever eccentric Khaled al-Sawy (The Blue Elephant, The Yacoubian Building), Al-Asleyeen are a group with unlimited access to surveillance, who in the name of patriotism have taken it upon themselves to keep an eye on every Egyptian who could possibly be a source of strife to the republic. Samir, as the type of person who takes no risks, who runs off to his man cave at the first sign of adversity, who’s closest brush with glory was his childhood ping pong champion days, is lured in by the group’s promise of a greater purpose in life and a quick way out of his financial woes.

And indeed, from the conventionally suspenseful trailer to bestselling novelist Ahmed Mourad’s attachment to the project, I had gone into it expecting a by-the-numbers thriller dealing with espionage and possibly drugs. But what emerges is actually an unexpected yet touching character piece: It’s when dealing with Samir’s malaise that the movie is at its strongest and most coherent. From the arresting tracking shot of Samir grocery shopping that opens the movie and Hesham Nazih’s soaring orchestral arrangements, to the alternately gormless and bored expressions on Kedwany’s face, the film paints a vivid picture of middle-aged ennui. The editing crackles, sliding between reality and fantasy, regular shots and surveillance cameras, bringing us into Samir’s psyche with a deft, lighthearted touch that is a pleasure to watch.

The film shifts when Samir starts working with Al-Asleyeen, spending his working hours in an enclosed room wallpapered with screens and loaded with tracking equipment so powerful that he’s apparently able to track anyone anywhere. Big brother is watching you, screen to screen, mic to mic, listening in on every breath, reading every text. Samir is handed a target with one direction and one prohibition: Watch her every move; stay far away in real life.

Sorayya, an academic and the target, played by 34-year-old Menna Shalaby (Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces, Microphone), is everything a conventional but poetically inclined woman would want to be. She’s smart but not intimidatingly so; independent but not above romance; feisty but feminine enough to be deemed a lady: the best of both worlds. She’s also beautiful, surrounded by an aura of peace and quiet confidence that draws Samir to her as he immerses himself in every aspect of her world, as invested in the mundane activities and unguarded moments as in any act that could spark suspicion.

Instead of descending into a 1984-type tale of surveillance, the movie crystallizes into a sweet Her-style tale of one-sided infatuation and longing. While the 2013 Spike Jonze film has Joaquin Phoenix as a man so lonely he falls for a Scarlett Johansson-voiced Siri-like operating system, Samir loses himself in the woman on screen. Her and Al-Asleyeen share a sense of warmth and empathy. The leads anchor their respective movies, exploring the films’ techie conceits through the very human prism of their emotions and vulnerabilities, while the music, coloring and editing work to keep the tone warm, human, steering far away from robotic beeps and bloops.

As Sorayya grows in Samir’s imagination, permeating his life, the sinister, voyeuristic aspects are tempered by Kedwany’s deeply empathetic performance: He’s a man in way over his head; a bundle of frazzled nerves caught between incredulity over the situation, worry for his family’s emotional and financial security, fear of Al-Asleyeen, and a growing tenderness toward his target. And we voyeuristically swoon from afar alongside him.

It’s when Samir ventures out of his surveillance chamber that the film starts to lag and lose its footing. We see extensive montages of Sorayya, scholar of culture, standing in a lecture hall talking about the rise and fall of civilization. The striking backdrops, mood lighting and Shalaby’s valiant efforts — part academia, part performance theater — go a long way, but there’s really only so much pontificating we can be expected to handle. As she gets to the heart of matter, and the core of her studies, a sense of The Blue Elephant deja vu settles in, in terms of both subject matter and aesthetic. Sorayya’s sphere of interest is the blue lotus. She believes it contains psychoactive properties that expand the brain, and this heightened perception allowed the Ancient Egyptians to innovate beyond the confines of their era. We cut between shots of Sorayya and vivid scenes from the year 30BC: An Ancient Egyptian couple on the Nile, amid their prized plants, all preternatural awareness and at one with the world; Roman invaders razing the lotuses, initiating the civilization’s free fall. The inserts are striking, but they’re the nail in the coffin for a final act that had already started to feel like something out of another movie.

At different moments throughout Al-Asleyeen, three individual movies come to life, all of which are interesting experiments worthy of being fleshed out in their own right. What we end up with though is one film that takes us from an insightful meditation on middle-aged ennui as explored through a tech-facilitated one-sided infatuation, to an entertaining but conventional fish-out-of-water spy caper, to a trippy screed on the role of psychoactive flowers in the devolution of society. It’s an interesting experiment, one that doesn’t entirely pay off, but there’s a synergy between the editing, framing, score, and lead performances that keeps you not just willing, but for the most part happy, to tag along.

The best thrillers get under your skin with real life resonance, but, as a story about surveillance, Al-Asleyeen treads lightly and safely steers away from overt political parallels. The eponymous group are a secret society working toward what they perceive to be the best interests of the country, without political ties or leanings mentioned. And Sorayya’s field of study is so esoteric that it carries little resonance in today’s world. In its refusal to comment on the actual state of surveillance we live in, and its reluctance to wholeheartedly bring Samir’s character arc to the forefront, the film’s impact is diluted, spread thin between the different pieces.

The Blue Elephant was a commercial smash based on Mourad’s best-selling novel, earning more than LE30 million at the local box office. Al-Asleyeen hasn’t fared as well, earning a fraction of that revenue and trailing far behind the Eid season’s other star-studded thriller, Ahmed Khaled Mousa’s Horoob Edterary (Forced Escape). This may partly be because its merits, and the growth of its director-writer duo, are obscured by a baffling marketing campaign: The poster downplays the stars, all acting heavyweights. The trailer plays up the darkness and sense of threat. Their look and feel obscure the things that give the movie personality, selling it as a generic thriller in an apparent attempt to appeal to The Blue Elephant crowd. It’s a shame, since it’s on precisely that level that the film fails to perform.

Yasmin Shehab