Friday, April 11, 2008

"Raise your sons, train your husband."

Mother of the Bride (Egypt, 1963) starring Tahiya Karioka and Emad Hamdi.
The above is advice is given to the eldest daughter of a nine deep family by the matriarch (Karioka), her daughter having encountered a bump in confidence with her fiance, telling her to hold out in resentment until he apologizes in order to ensure she has the upper hand in the relationship. This of course is swiftly discarded once the mother leaves the room as Ahlam, the daughter, is not her mother, and Galal, her fiance, is not his father. They both though will be inheriting a long standing tradition of marital union that, judging from the familial chaos surrounding the moment, portends their wide-eyed infatuation with marrying at first sight will have to be scrupulously managed in order to maintain at least some kind of semblance.
The film, about a lower class Egyptian family thrown into a tumult when the eldest daughter is eyed upon by a level-six engineer soon to be promoted to fifth, seems to guise itself in the madcap tradition of screwball comedy but only to heighten the ridiculousness of adhering to societal codes at all costs. The father, played by Hamdi, is a humble government bureaucrat who, even with the dowry put down by the groom's family, simply cannot afford the interior decoration that makes up the daughter's family's half of the engagement.
The first scene, an extended sequence in which multiple explosions of barely contained vitriol erupt around the morning's infant feeding routine (as the mother is still popping out kids making it seven and counting), while the father awaits news of a raise, would be epic comedy (which it is played for) if not for the utter desperation in which the mother and father attempt to rein in the siblings. That they entirely avoid parental nuance, opting instead to launch siblings onto another's resonsibility where, in a round robin of frustrated dismissal, everyone is at least once encountered with some kind of hyperbolic threat of violence, with the underworld invoked to ensure the ill will is felt. The chaos with which the routine is played out, instead of just evoking laughs (which it does, wonderfully) goes further and puts on display the factors required for two people to raise their pension.
The first scene on youtube!
One of the central points of the film is the father's inability to cash his government pension in order to afford the extravagances the wedding entails due to a bureaucratic rule that requires one wait a month before approval goes through the right offices. Upon realization that desperate times call for desperate measures, his expression grows sullen. His wife inquires as to why his character is so grave, he tells her he meant to give the pension to her. She damns the pension, saying she doesn't need. Why? She birthed seven children!
The eldest daughter opted to stay home instead of going to college, in order to help raise the family. The second eldest daughter plans to go to college and can't understand why her sister won't do the same. The eldest male, noticing the possibility of their abandoning the household, takes on a paternal responsibility and consistently attempts to thwart any of his sisters' romances. The second eldest of the sons is a violin player, wheeling and dealing in order to afford strings for his violin. The youngest son, probably five, is just a hustler with no end goal in mind. The youngest daughter is just defiantly holding herself up amid the ruckus. The baby, well, the baby is the handbasket they all send each other to hell in. We learn all of this within the first ten minutes merely by paying attention to what's being shouted.
There are some startling moments, such as the mother's nonchalant revelation to the groom's family that she had Ahlam at age 11 (perhaps I misunderstood, but she repeated it multiple times after being asked "oh, really" so I assume I didn't), yet there is no contempt towards her husband or her situation per se (the unbearably frustrated yelling indicates otherwise), as they reflect nostalgically on their beginnings while she frets over her daughter's departure, comforting herself with the notion, based on experience, that one falls in love after marriage. Or the second eldest daughter's choices in regards to her future plans, that, whether or not the intent of the filmmakers, still reflects the awkward transition into a modern society. Or the way the kids are cruelly dismissed by exhausted parentals without the audience ever once doubting their devotion to upholding a happy family. It's a shame the production of family films are taken for granted now, with films like Cheaper by the Dozen displaying affluent white families merely having children because they can, allowing them to run wild while the parent's main concern is their self-image. A film like Mother of the Bride would have fallen apart due to marketing pressures in which each of the film's elements would have to have been compromised in one way or another to appease a certain demographic. The chaotic familial maneuvering would have been debased to mere hijinks and schmaltz, whereas the matrimony would have been played for soft rom com a la Father of the Bride (which somehow managed to conflate whimsy voice overs with introspection), the classist tension cosmetically reconstructed as eccentric quirks (MBFGW), the eventual solutions played like morality plays and so on. The way this film balances all of those without submitting to one allows for one of the most dizzying wedding sequences put on film, as the climactic barrage of brass bands and belly dancing amid seemingly insoluble grief is great.
Apparently the mother and the father in the film are Egyptian film legends from the country's golden age of cinema. This was the only movie available with either of them on netflix. My mother insisted on renting it out of nostalgia for when she would sit around with her family and watch Egyptian films every night on Israeli television. I'm glad she did but saddened at the prospect of being bereft of most what that age had to offer.