Kian Bergstrom reviews “The Agony of Love” for Cine-File Chicago

subtext-eyeLoosely based on THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING, this film features one of Omar Sharif’s earliest major roles, playing the romantically-impaired Hussein, a hapless mid-level executive in his uncle’s company. While he pines pathetically away for his cousin, Samiha, his brother, Mahroos desperately engages in absurd ploys to keep their uncle’s sexual liaisons secret from their aunt, Bahiga. But the arrival of Luci, Bahiga’s nephew, threatens to destroy this unstable equilibrium when Samiha falls for him, entranced by his cosmopolitan, sophisticated education and fashion. Their uncle, very experience in matters of love, hatches an absurd plot to convince Samiha that Hussein is a sexually-desirable heartbreaker instead of the biggest nerd in the Port of Saïd that involves pretending Hussein has been sleeping with pop superstar Hind Rostom, then at the height of her popularity. Astonishingly, it works, but when Rostom herself arrives in the film, all bets are off. This delightful sex comedy is anchored by a great performance by Sharif, who manages to be both irritatingly geeky and overwhelmingly charismatic all at once, but its true star is Abdel Moneim Ibrahim and his genius for subtle physical humor. His gender-bending performance as Mahroos, expert vocal imitator and hopeless schemer, steals the show every time he’s on screen. Wahab was a terrifically prolific director, directing nearly three films a year his entire career, but most have been very difficult to see in this country until now. THE AGONY OF LOVE, which was a huge hit in Egypt when it was released and remains very popular there, shows him to be at least very interesting if not genuinely great as a director. He stages in off-putting visual configurations, putting his audience off balance and dryly hinting in his camerawork that the farcical actions being performed have a darker and more sinister meaning. His compositions occasionally veer into the outright expressionistic, placing his characters in dramatic, geometric compositions that tend to dominate and overwhelm them, as though the heart-felt love triangle being negotiated here is being mocked by the very architecture it’s taking place within. One set of images in particular are especially striking as Hussein watches Samiha drive off with Luci early in the film, surrounded by a play of vertical and diagonal lines that suggest a Mabuse-like caged in power not to be trifled with. True to its stage origins, the film ends on an audacious moment of fourth-wall-breaking that underlines its own artificial, structured nature. Wahab’s movie is self-reflexive, thoughtful, unexpectedly frank about sexual concerns, and hilarious.

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