by Lisa Lieberman
Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, who died this week, excelled at playing passionate characters whose humanity was at war with their idealism. Here I will discuss three memorable films from different phases of his career.
A Man in Our House
You can tell that the director of A Man in our House, Henri Barakat, learned his trade in Paris. Here's the story: during the period of British colonial rule, a student radical, Ibrahim Hamdy (played by Omar Sharif) assassinates the Egyptian prime minister. Beaten by the authorities, he manages to escape with the help of his fellow radicals and takes refuge with an ordinary middle-class family.B
The film has the feel of a classic French thriller. Claustrophobic scenes inside the family's Cairo apartment alternate with shots of the Egyptian police as they close in on Ibrahim. The sleazy cousin finds out that the family is harboring a terrorist and threatens to reveal him to the authorities. A romance blossoms between Ibrahim and Nawal, the youngest daughter. Of course it ends tragically, with Ibrahim sacrificing himself for the cause. But freedom is dearer than life, and Nawal understands this.
While the genre is French, the movie's message is staunchly Egyptian. Keep in mind that A Man in our House was made under Nasser, in response to the ruler's call for a new nationalist cinema. Who could resist an opportunity to use film not simply to entertain, but to educate and unite a population? “The people judged him,” Ibrahim says, justifying the assassination of the prime minister as an act of political protest; “I carried out the execution.”
For all its polemics, Barakat's attention to the details of daily life gives the film an authentic feel. We see the family gathering around the dinner table to break their fast during Ramadan. We observe the rules, spoken and unspoken, governing interactions between the sexes, witness the children's respect for their parents, the responsibility the father feels for protecting his family even as his nascent patriotism is awakened. All of this is conveyed so naturally that we forgive A Man in our House its melodramatic aspects. And when the sleazy cousin regains his dignity by identifying with the cause of independence, we're moved by the way he explains his sudden change of heart: “The man I was turning in sacrificed his life for my pride.”
Omar Sharif plays a Russian and Doctor Zhivago was shot mostly in Spain by a British director, produced by an Italian. “Lara's Theme,” the schmaltzy leitmotif that evokes the Julie Christie character, can still be heard in elevators today. But the film has endured, in no small part due to the humanity of Omar Sharif's performance.
Let's start with an early scene: it is 1912 and a group of workers are demonstrating in the streets of Moscow, led by the idealistic Pasha Antipov, a young social democrat. An equally young and idealistic Yuri Zhivago watches the scene from a balcony, and witnesses the violence as the workers are mowed down by Cossacks on horseback. Pasha is radicalized by the event and becomes a revolutionary, lashing out against the regime responsible for such brutality, but growing more ruthless as the story progresses. Yuri turns away, turns inward. Each new upheaval in Russia, each act of violence, reaffirms his determination to live, to love, and to create. Sharif registers pain in those soulful brown eyes. Unlike Pasha or the commander of the partisan unit that conscripts him later in the picture, his character never loses his humanity, never sacrifices his concern for individuals, their lives, their hopes, their needs in the name of “justice” or some other abstract good.
And so we come to another key scene. Yuri and Lara have taken refuge in the frozen dacha that belonged to Yuri's wife's family. In the early morning, Yuri sits at his desk writing poems. Wolves howl at the edge of the property, but inside the frost-starred window, we see the warm glow of Yuri's candle. A mere moment of safety, of peace; we know it cannot last. But the beauty of that moment sustains us.
It's tempting to view the title character of this film as the last in a progression of Omar Sharifs. The young firebrand of A Man in our House makes way for the more reflective, but no less passionate Doctor Zhivago. And here we have the seventy-one-year-old Sharif making peace with his past and handing over the mantle of his successful international acting career to the next generation.
Monsieur Ibrahim is a sweet, insubstantial film suffused with nostalgia for a Paris that never was. Kind-hearted prostitutes solicit customers on the well-swept streets of a working-class neighborhood against a soundtrack of sixties rock ‘n roll. There's a whiff (but just a whiff) of anti-Arab feeling, a backstory involving parental abandonment, a suicide that leaves barely a trace on the adolescent hero's psyche. Momo is too busy coming of age to drown in his sorrows, especially since he has Sharif's Turkish shopkeeper character, Ibrahim, as a surrogate father.
The two go off on a jaunt in a red sports car, to visit Ibrahim's native land. He shows Momo a couple of churches and a mosque. Then he takes him to watch a Sema ceremony in his own Sufi tradition, dervishes whirling around their hearts, as Ibrahim explains the dance. “They lose all their bearings, that burden we call balance.”
Intriguing notion, but nobody loses their balance in this film. We see Ibrahim absorbed in the dance, but as an observer. A close-up of Sharif's beautiful face: “They become like torches. They burn in a blazing fire,” he tells Momo. That's the young Omar Sharif talking. The firebrand, the poet, the lover. But this version of Sharif renounces the dance, ending his journey in the village he left. “I've arrived,” he says on his deathbed. “I didn't know.”
And Momo? He goes back to Paris and takes over the shop.