The Arabic film scene can’t get enough Faten Hamama, Egypt’s iconic living legend. She broke every law of performance with her ‘naturel’ and innocent face which brought her closer to everyone’s home. Her acting transcended the stereotypical image of women as objects of desire, or stay-at-home mothers. With her characters, women had a voice, an opinion and a crucial role in the progress of culture. Her 1975 film ‘Oridu Hallan’ (I Need a Solution) criticised the Khul divorce laws, which forbid a wife to initiate separation. Following the film’s influence, the law changed. Yes, film can change the world.
‘Empire M’, widely considered one of Egypt’s 100 most beautiful films, marked a new phase in Faten Hamama’s career. In the 1972 picture, she moved away from playing the powerless female, to the role of a woman who enjoys the same responsibilities of a man.
She plays Mona, an upper class widower with six children whose names all begin with the letter M. She works at the education ministry, her social status is well regarded by her peers and rumours abound that she may be elected as a minister.
Between her home responsibilities and the ministry’s demands, she finds little time for herself or her relationship with Ahmad (Ahmad Mazhar). For years, he’s been doing everything in his power to marry her, hinting that she needs a male presence to go through life’s hardships. As much as she enjoys his love, she resists.
She wants to focus on her children’s education but her micro-management seems to exasperate the family. Her elder son, law student Mostafa (Seif Abu Al Naga), revolts. Using his siblings’ complaints, they attempt to break free from their mother, whom they depend on financially. Now they have to democratically elect a new leader to be in charge. Mona takes the matter lightly, thinking it’s another pastime for her children, but soon realises they’re serious.
The film opens with a young Mona convincing her parents of her right to choose the man she’ll marry. It closes with a similar sentiment; her children ultimately want to demonstrate their democratic right.
The film hints on the ideal way Egyptian society should and could be. The family represents the country and highlights the crucial leader’s (or mother’s in this case) role of a multitasked educator. Without her, the family will fall apart and she’s the only one to assess her children’s capabilities and needs. At the same time, her leadership can expand outside the house’s borders.
Based on Ihsan Abdel Quddous’ book and adapted for the screen by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, ‘Empire M’ demonstrates Hamama’s pro-democratic views. As a supporter of the 1952 revolution, she had refused to honour Egypt’s screens because of her opposition to the domineering Free Officers regime.
Undeniably, Empire M is a must-see classic!