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Michelangelo and company
Published in Ahram Online on 03 - 12 - 2019

The 41st round of the Cairo Film International Festival (CIFF) wrapped up last Friday. The The Golden Pyramid for best film went to I Am No Longer Here by Fernando Frias, The Silver Pyramid, special jury prize for best director to Bas Devos for Ghost Tropic, the Best Arab Film to A Son by Mehdi M. Barsaoui, the Cinema of Tomorrow Short Film Competition first mention to The Trap by Nada Riyadh, and the Youssef Cherif Rizkallah Audience Award to Let's Talk by Marianne Khoury.
Last year saw the launch of an important addition to the CIFF: the Cairo Film Connection (CFC), organised by the Arab Cinema Centre (ACC) along with five other partners offering awards to projects in the production, development and post-production phases. Its jury included Egyptian screenwriter Mariam Naoum, founder and managing director of Media Luna New Films Ida Martins, and producer and consultant in film and television George David. The CFC second edition this year featured 16 films in post-production and development. The winners of this year's round are: Leila and I by Maggie Morgan, produced by Shady Habashy (Arab Radio and Television award, $10,000); A House for Expats by Naji Ismail (Iraqi Cinema award, $5,000); The Life and Times of Omar Sharif by Mark Lotfy and Axel Petersen, produced by Muhammad Taymour and Sigrid Helleday (MAD Solutions and Ergo award, $30,000); About Her by Islam El-Azzazi, produced by Dina Farouk and Rina Khoury (Rotana Group award, $10,000); and Shameem by Karim Rahbani was invited to attend the attend the Rotterdam Lab in 2020.
CIFF's Special Screenings section featured the Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky's Il Peccato (Sin), a biopic of the great Italian sculptor of the High Renaissance Michelangelo. Co-written by Konchalovsky and Elena Kiseleva, the film is set in 16th-century Florence and featuring Alberto Testone, best known for his role in Stefano Sollima's Suburra in 2015 as Michelangelo, called “divini” (divine) for his work as a sculptor and painter.
The film opens with Michelangelo speaking to himself while he walks alone, telling Florence how mean it is to its people and asking how many people it ruined, taking all his loved ones, including Dante. He is on his way to attend his uncle's funeral.
The film documents the career of Michelangelo starting with his commission by Pope Julius II, the head of the Della Rovere family and the most powerful man in Italy, to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. However, the Medici, an affluent Florentine bloodline long locked in a bitter rivalry with the Della Rovere are eagerly anticipating the prevailing pope's demise in order to take control of the whole country. When Pope Julius II dies Michelangelo is forced to pick sides and so accepts a commission to finish his tomb, starting his search for the perfect slab of marble for it. Once the Medici Pope Leo X sits in the Vatican, he is forced to use marble from the Medici mines.
Michelangelo is neither interested in the Della Rovere nor the Medici, but after leaving Carrara where he found his perfect slab, which he has difficulty transporting and calls a monster, he has to deceive both sides to keep his work going. He also has his own dilemma, constantly suspecting one of his assistants of trying to poison him as a favour to either of the two families, and unconvinced of his greatness, ironically best defined by the unfinished St. Peter's Basilica, which he died while working on.
Testone gives a sublime performance, and cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov's views of Florence are delightful. Konchalovsky is recognised for the films Runaway Train (1985), which was nominated for three Academy Awards, and Paradise (2016), awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival.
All This Victory
Screened in the International Competition was Jedar Al-Sout (translated as “All This Victory”), Lebanese director Ahmed Ghossein's debut feature, cowritten by Alba Khoury and set in a simple Lebanese house during the Lebanon war between Hezbollah and Israel (12 July-14 August 2006). The 93-minute film received the Critics Week Award at Venice Film Festival 2019.
Marwan (Karam Ghossein, the director's sibling) is worried about his father in southern Lebanon during the airstrikes of the Israeli army, so he decides to take the deadly drive from Beirut to his father's old village near the Israeli border to pick him up despite the objections of his wife Rana (Flavia Juska Bechara). When he finally arrives at the village he finds his father's house and many others razed. He phones his father, and hears the phone ringing in the wreckage.
Marwan soon finds two of his father's neighbours (Adel Chahine and Boutros Rouhana), who invite him into the one house in the area that remains standing, and despite their attempts at reassuring him it becomes clear they don't know where his father is.
In the course of the the conversation itself a new Israeli raid starts and Marwan is unable to leave. When the airstrike stops he tries to persuade them to flee with him while the owner of the house argues against the idea, claiming that his property withstood raids in 1982 and 1993. Only the asthmatic friend goes with Marwan (because he is running out of inhaler), but by then Marwan's car has been commandeered by another family. Later a couple who take refuge with them back in the house unintentionally inform Marwan of his father's death.
Later, while Israeli soldiers – never seen – inspect the building, the group pretend to be dead in order to avoid being killed. But the Israelis start fighting among themselves. At some point, adding to the claustrophobia, a water pipe explodes. When a helicopter takes the Israelis away, the asthmatic man steps out for some air and is immediately shot dead. Meanwhile, back in Beirut, Rana is at the Canadian embassy trying to collect her and Marwan's passports in preparation for leaving Beirut.
The outdoor scenes are beautifully captured by cinematographer Shadi Chaaban. The director manages to convey a powerful sense of captivity, though with little or no back stories the characters come across as paper thin. The performance and charisma of the two elderly men, recalling Laurel and Hardy, is one strong element that lifts many scene.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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