Original review featured on The Doha Film Institute website
Stars: Soheir Al Morcheidi, Salah Mansour, Zizi Mostafa, Shoukri Sarhane
‘Al Bostagui’ (‘The Postman’) is a famous, classic black and white Egyptian film. Filmed in 1968, it has been chosen to play during the Cannes Classics selection as part of the inaugural ‘Guest Country’ celebrations . No one is surprised that Cannes chose Egypt as their first ‘Guest Country’. Egypt has been participating in Cannes since the late 40’s, and has always been the cinema workforce of the region. By acknowledging Egypt as the ‘Guest Country’, Cannes is both helping to promote film – and filmmakers – from around the globe, while also acknowledging the historical abundance in both arts and politics. With the new historical era in Egyptian politics, we can only expect a rise in the art scene simultaneously.
‘Al Bostagui’ is not a random choice for screening this year: as we view its rich and exploratory content we come to understand why, given that we are in the midst of a memorable time for the Middle East in so many different aspects. Based on the original novel by Yahya Hakki, ‘Al Bostagui’ director Hussain Kamal decided to show on screen what many contradicted at the time, highlighting what he sees as bad in Egyptian society.
The film tells the story of Abbas (Shokri Srahane) the bostagui (postman) who has been transferred from Cairo to work in the countryside. Facing problems in adapting to his new and difficult environment, he finds himself obsessed with reading the letters he handles as much as a means of revenge from the corruption around him, as from curiosity and boredom.
He soon discovers a secret love story between Jamila(Zizi Mostapha), the daughter of the Mayor, and Khalil (Said Abdurahman) from a neighbouring village. Abbas sympathizes with their tale and he becomes a silent intermediate, involved in a story that is not his. Accidently, he messes with one of the letters, and that small change remarkably shapes the future of the couple.
The film presents several lines of dramatic harmony portrayed in 2 main thematic lines.
The first tells the story of the postman coming from the city, living with a strong conflict between the perception of social reality and that of the villagers. He isolates himself from his surroundings, into a cruel and boring routine imposed by the people he encounters on a daily basis. Visually, this is mastered in details such as his prison-like office; talking to people behind bars; and his humid room with pictures of women. It is social frustration and the incapacity of adapting. On the other hand, villagers are represented in a buffoonish way, with very comic and exaggerated acting and accents, showing a strong discrepancy in beliefs.
At the beginning of the film we realise that even an education for girls would be a challenge, never mind a love story outside the walls of tradition. But this tradition carries with it frustration, injustice and double standards: the Mayor believes it is his right to have a relationship his unwilling housemaid, while on the other hand he is very strict with his young daughter. The helpless maid can say nothing to her master, or anybody else, and the Mayor’s wife wouldn’t dare face him with his obvious treachery. Another example in one of my favourite scenes, where the men of the villages discover magazines the postman collects with pictures of women. They accuse him of being corrupt, but at the same time steal them to enjoy a glimpse of any woman, comparing their beauty to that of their ‘ugly’ wives. This is a strong social criticism that could – in my opinion – still be applicable fifty years later.
The second thematic line, floating in parallel with the first, is the love story. The only link the couple has to each other are the letters they eagerly send to one another. The postman sympathizes with what he perceives to be one of the rare, truthful and beautiful relationships in this village, in comparison to the clownish people he has to deal with on a daily basis. The couple speak a language he understands and respects. Their relationship, and especially Jamila, becomes his concern, because he knows well what the villagers are capable of doing to her if they learn about it. The film takes us on a journey, through their words, where we become eager to find an exit that will lead to their happiness, and away from the village.
The film carries powerful messages on physical taboos, honour killings and revenge, highlighted with a witty and double-edged sarcasm. Hussain Kamal, in one of his best films, reveals an intellectual and artistic vision in dealing with the mentality of the Egyptian village back then, and the urge to make a change.
It is a beautiful film indeed, carrying with it the timeless charm of the black and white picture, while also celebrating Egypt’s golden years of cinema.