Discovering the Best Arab Film of All Times, in Florence

Thu Apr 17,2014

E. Nina Rothe

When the Dubai International Film Festival unveiled back in November its list of the “100 Best Arab Films of All Times” I was surprised to see ‘Al-Mummia’ (The Mummy) by Chadi Abdel Salam grab the coveted number one spot. Personally, I thought the position would belong to someone like Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, who has simply reinvented the seventh art as a whole, and turned the concept of world cinema upside down with his work. I secretly wondered how a film shot in 1969 Egypt could embody the same magic as Suleiman’s contemporary masterpieces, and rise to the top of the charts in a book aptly named ‘Cinema of Passion’. But of course, I hadn’t yet watched ‘The Mummy -- The Night of Counting the Years’.

Last week, I finally watched Salam’s only feature, the grand spectacle that is ‘The Mummy’, on the big screen of an ancient cinema in Florence, as part of the Middle East Now festival. It was a magical moment, one that changed the way I will watch films forever. Of course, the entire festival, run by the husband and wife team of Lisa Chiari and Roberto Ruta, exceeded my expectations -- from its choice of programming, to their complete Hany Abu-Assad retrospective, to the atmosphere of Renaissance Florence all around us, which somehow complemented cinema from MENA perfectly. But back to ‘The Mummy’.

Apart from its true story-aspect and obvious historical importance, one punctuated by the involvement of Martin Scorsese’s prestigious World Cinema Foundation, in association with the Cineteca di Bologna, in restoring the film to its original finest, ‘The Mummy’ has also obviously provided nearly half a century of countless fashion inspiration. From Yves Saint Laurent to Dries Van Noten, the costumes and sets designed by Salam himself are simply breathtaking, while helping to tell the story from a cultural point of view. But a film is nothing for me if it doesn’t encourage countless conversations afterward, and stays within the viewer, raising questions and doubts. ‘The Mummy’ did all that and more.

And now comes the hardest part to express. For someone like me, whose work depends on finding ways to describe what I love and what inspires me, I’m at a loss for words with Salam’s film. ‘The Mummy’ singlehandedly proves and negates the power of humanity. While the film itself seems to offer little hope for Egypt, its wealth of heritage and describes how Egyptians are doomed, one way or another, in handling it, the choice of this film at the top of DIFF’s chart proves that if there’s any hope for the world, it will come from the Arab world. Within the culture, the traditions and the understanding of countries like the UAE, the intellectual abilities of MENA film critics and cinematic personalities, lies our best chance for a balanced world. One where we all recognize that perhaps the best course of action sometimes is none at all, and where art can lead the way in uniting us all, through the spectacular visions of great artists and the wonderful organizations who support them.


The Middle East Now film festival website:

For the full list of ‘Cinema of Passion’ top 100 films:

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