As Egyptians, we’re spoiled for choice on the history front — not just of monuments and artefacts, but of storytelling traditions. Sherif Arafa’s star-studded Eid film Al-Kenz (The Treasure: Between Reality and Myth), which has grossed over LE10 million so far, plays with this heritage over almost three hours and three storylines. It weaves between ancient Egypt, the Ottoman era, and the dying days of the monarchy by following three characters as they each do whatever it takes to go down in their particular moment in history.
We start in the 1970s, in the Luxor house that ties the threads together. Hassan Beshr (Ahmed Hatem), like a young, brooding Cat Stevens in full beard, jewel-toned shirts and prominent belt buckles, returns to Egypt as the sole remaining member of his family, intending to sell the family home then hightail it back to Europe. But he stumbles upon a message from his deceased father that throws a wrench in his plans: a sheaf of ancient parchment pointing to long-lost treasure somewhere on the estate. With that, the saga begins in flashback form.
Arafa skimps on drama to focus on the visuals, keeping the three strands simple and similar in terms of story. We spend time in one era, drinking in the sights, sounds and troubles, then cut and we’re sent chasing another character at a similar turning point in their own arc.
The best storyline is the one set in the late 1940s, just before the overthrow of the monarchy. My impression of actor Mohamed Saad came primarily from his starring turns in goofy, lowest-common-denominator comedies such as Al-Lemby and Bouha, but his character in The Treasure is dramatic – and the most nuanced of the film’s three leads. Saad plays ruthlessly ambitious police officer Beshr al-Katatny, an intelligent and morally compromised character who marries to further his career, with a raw, naked hunger lurking just below a shrewd, refined exterior.
Beshr has two Achilles heels – two people with the power to tarnish his stellar record – and through his interactions with them, his character is thrown into sharp relief. The first is his addict brother, whom he coerces into helping him but then throws into prison. Incarcerated, this formally frivolous young man comes under the influence of the opposition forces of the time, anti-monarchists and the Muslim Brotherhood, taking more of a shine to the latter, and foreshadowing big problems for Beshr in the Arafa’s two planned sequels. The second is Neamat (Amina Khalil), a comely cabaret singer with the voice of an angel and the chastity of a nun. Bewitched by her voice and tantalized by her refusal to meet him at his table, he uses sly tricks to string her into his web.
This allows for many scenes clearly inspired by the grandfather of modern musicals, Cabaret. The Treasure wears this influences on its sleeve, from the club’s name (Cabaret, if you’re wondering) and iconic signage to the musical numbers, performed with gusto but lacking the finesse of Bob Fosse’s 1972 film. As in that movie, the musical interludes are used to further both romantic and political plotlines. While all three eras show Egypt at a point of change, this one is the closest to our current one. The monarchy’s power is waning and revolutionary sentiment is on the rise. As well as the prison system’s capacity for radicalization, we see that dissent finds a more subtle, but no more tolerated, outlet through song and dance.
Over in Ottoman Egypt, the tale of rebel with a cause Ali al-Zaibaq also whirls in a flourish of song. Mohamed Ramadan – playing to type – embodies the physicality of the swashbuckling Robin Hood-type renegade who storms in on his stallion. Whereas Beshr rises from within the system, Zaibaq works outside of it, following in his father’s footsteps to fight for people’s rights in the face of oppressive governors. He’s a rough yet high-minded character, more straightforward than Saad’s but no less watchable: Despite not having much to work with, Ramadan plays the role with a light heart, bringing levity to his sword-fights, police chases and desert treks. This is also true when he falls in love with Zeinab (Ruby), who turns out to be the daughter of his father’s murderer, the corrupt enforcer of debilitating taxes on the population.
Star-crossed lovers from the Arab golden age mean love-struck clichés, and Ramadan and Ruby deliver with abandon. But you can forgive flowery prose when it’s spoken tongue-in-cheek, a knowing sparkle in the eye. Their romance throws a wrench in Ali’s life though. Where he’d previously been sure of clear delineations between good and evil, Zainab introduces grey to his world, making him question – briefly – his oath to battle corruption wherever he finds it, and how far he’s willing to go. Can he give up love to fulfill his destiny? Can he kill her father to avenge his own?
If Ali’s the hot-headed man trying to save a doomed love, in ancient Egypt fearsome ruler Hatshepsut (Hend Sabry) is a woman with so much to lose that she can barely think of romance. Though she may be the rightful heir to the throne after the pharaoh’s death, there’s never anything more threatening to the patriarchy, society and its deities like a woman in power.
Hatshepsut means “foremost of noble ladies” and it’s a name befitting her achievements as one of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs. Unfortunately, the story arc and performances don’t do her justice. In the film, forced to find a way to circumvent a society unenthused at having a female ruler, Hatshepsut marries her lesser-born brother, instates him as figurehead and rules from behind the curtain. Exceedingly disgruntled, he gets a lover and reproduces, while she can only admire her common-born architect crush Senenmut (Hany Adel) from afar. Hatshepsut suffers from being too wise, determined and infallible, there’s not much we know about Senenmut beyond his devotion to the queen, and the chemistry between Sabry and Adel fails to crackle. And without the in-on-the-joke quality that makes the Ali/Zeinab romance, we’re left with two actors making googly-eyes at each other from across the room, trying to make the best of stilted lines under the watchful eyes of some very suspicious, cartoonishly evil priests.
Fortunately the transitions between times and stories are frequent and happen with ease, making The Treasure, for all its time-travelling and star-juggling, a clear, cohesive watch. The pacing keeps us immersed; holding our breath during the fights, amused by the romantic banter, toes tapping during the musical interludes. Two of the storylines are propelled by music – Sufi-style for the Ottoman period, and cabaret during the 1940s – which helps bring the vibes of both periods to life – a necessity in a film this packed. So it goes by rather quickly despite a bloated run time, and if it lags slightly in the middle, we’re still held firmly captive in its world.
The Treasure’s wild ambition is nowhere more apparent than in the art direction, which also helps ease transitions and aid comprehension. We’re not talking faithful depictions of what the different eras looked like; this is an escapist fantasy through and through, and as such the visuals are as romanticized as the storylines. The 1940s gets a bourgeois makeover, treating us to the nostalgic version of Cairo that pops up on Facebook – the one where apparently women wore short skirts freely, sexual harassment didn’t exist, and there was nary an out-of-place leaf on the streets. And the pharaonic era gets the short end of the stick with blindingly white, oddly texture-less sets, which is cartoonish and distracting.
Overall, The Treasure bites off more than it can chew, but brings it all together with a strut and a bang: it’s more of a cinematic spectacle than a film, the kind of thing big screens and popcorn were created for. Arafa has made a name out of crowd-pleasing yet often substantial movies and here he goes for broke in every aspect – big stars, big set pieces, big art direction, big emotion – and makes it look easy. Like the best epics it goes straight for the lofty themes, never going for too much detail or substance but doing more to make Egyptian history young and relevant than years and years of history class. It’s Egypt’s superior answer to The Da Vinci Code, if you will, and a welcome distraction from our current reality. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride and I for one am looking forward to the sequel.
For a different take on The Treasure, see here.