• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    Al-Mohager (The Emigrant)

    For some reason the story of Joseph has never really appealed to me. Perhaps it's just that it's never really clear what, if anything, Joseph learns along the way; or that the story seems to skip by the interesting parts of the story early on, but spends an age over the film's protracted conclusion. So my hopes for Youssef Chahine's Al-Mohager (The Emigrant) were not particularly high, even though the synopsis on the back of the DVD promised to tell the story from the Egyptian perspective, rather than the Hebrew.

    The film was released amid a storm of protest in Chahine's native Egypt for depicting an Islamic prophet, despite it changing the name of all its characters. So Joseph becomes Ram, Jacob is known as Adam, Potiphar is called Amihar, and his hitherto unnamed wife, Simihit. Initially this is a little confusing particularly as the film also takes a very unconventional approach to it's source material. Whilst the film doesn't really come from an "Egyptian perspective", it does strip the story of its supernatural and mythical elements, suggest different motives for its characters' actions, and fill in the gaps in the biblical narrative - all of which is a little disorientating. Yet these alterations actually become the film's biggest strength. Shorn of his miraculous ability to receive and interpret dreams, the film is able to focus on the person of Joseph far more than other such productions. And ditching Joseph / Ram's famous coat of many colours distances Mohager from the campy excesses of Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat. Good - the idea of the coat being multicoloured was all down to mistranslation anyway.The end result is that Chahine and Khaled El Nabaoui, his leading man, craft a Joseph figure that we can really care about. He still has something of a superiority complex, but his desire to improve on his life, rather than simply settling for his family's hand-to-mouth existence, becomes his driving force. He decides that he wants to discover how to farm the land rather than wander from place to place and it's the start of Joseph's interest in agriculture. The Bible's never really clear how Joseph became such a brilliant agricultural strategist, but this idea is perhaps this film's biggest concern.

    Once sold into slavery in Egypt, Ram's audacity and confidence gain the attention of his otherwise unreachable master. Having repeatedly expressed his desire to learn how to farm he is eventually given a strip of desert to experiment on. Good coaching, hard work, luck and Ram's cleverness make the endeavour a tremendous success.Having succeeded, however, he is drawn back towards the city and Simihit, his master's wife. Simihit also happens to be the high priestess of the local cult and, as her husband is a eunuch, she looks to Ram for fulfilment. As in the biblical version of the story she makes a pass at Joseph and quickly tries to cover her tracks by claiming he was forcing himself on her, but here she relents shortly afterwards, meaning that Joseph's time in jail is significantly shorter than we are used to. Having regained his freedom he now has the requisite experience to be able to advise on national agricultural policy. It's still a bit of a leap, but it seems much more understandable given his love for, and understanding of, farming.

    Much of the film's success is due to Khaled El Nabaoui strong performance as a cocky yet likeable Ram. Whilst some of the other performances are a little weak, El Nabaoui expertly combines youthful exuberance, drive, fearless confidence, with boundless energy. There's a twinkle in his eyes that remains even as he matures which, again, suggests an explanation for why he treats his brothers the way he does when they turn up at his door asking for food. The story is, mercifully, abbreviated at this point and Ram limits the games he plays with his brothers before revealing his identity.Aside from El Nabaoui's performance and the innovative handling of the original text, the film also owes a lot to Chahine's eye for a good image and his ability to evoke so strongly nomadic and civil life in the Egyptian region almost four thousand years ago. There's much that's alien about the world that Chahine takes us to, yet much that is also familiar. It's also good to see the story acted out by characters who are racially similar to the original characters.

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    Derek Elley, author of 'The Epic Film' has also written a review of this film for Variety.

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