The Yacoubian Building [subtitled]

The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building is one of those movies that from the description I expected would be a considerable strain to get through, even if it was a good quality movie: a subtitled foreign film (Egyptian in this case; I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen an Egyptian movie); two hours and forty-five minutes long; and described as more of a slice of life where we gradually get to know an ensemble cast of characters than as having a particularly compelling storyline.

Again, might well be a fine movie, but likely to be more a test of concentration and stamina than easy enjoyment.

But it turned out not to be so difficult a film. There are bits here and there that are confusing, or slow, or where maybe I wasn’t as focused, but overall it held my interest at least close to as well as a decent quality conventional movie of conventional length in English. I mostly cared about the characters and thought the various subplots were at least fairly interesting.

One oddity worth mentioning upfront is that the movie—at least the version I saw—is both dubbed and subtitled. The dubbed voices sound like Arabic or some related language (the subtitles are in English), so I don’t know why they had to be dubbed. I mean, what language were the actors speaking originally?

So you kind of get the worst of both worlds. There’s the awkwardness of the audio not being synced quite right with their mouths moving (which is why “serious” foreign films are always subtitled instead of dubbed, and people look down their nose at Godzilla movies and such), but you still have to do the extra work of reading the movie.

Actually, though, having both makes the dubbing less distracting than it would otherwise be. When they’re talking, my eyes are on the words at the bottom of the screen and not their faces anyway, so more often than not I don’t even notice how well or poorly it syncs.

The film is about the intersecting lives of various people who live in an apartment building in Cairo, the Yacoubian Building. Once a symbol of decadent luxury, the building and its surrounding neighborhood have, if not fallen on hard times, at least fallen on ambiguous times. For its denizens now include not only people who are at least reasonably well off, but the working poor, who mostly live in little units on the roof.

So it’s a mélange of all different types of people from all different strata of society, taking part in various subplots of the movie.

Insofar as there is a “main” story (and arguably there isn’t), I suppose that would be the tale of the “Pasha.” The Pasha represents old money. He carries himself with a certain dignity and a longing for the formalities of the old and better days, while he fights with the sister he lives with, maintains a friendship with a former flame from long ago who he is grateful understands him, goes through the motions of keeping an office and a profession though he doesn’t seem to do much there and probably financially doesn’t need it, and actively courts much younger women.

But along with the Pasha and his adventures trying to remain classy in a society he senses has little use for someone like him anymore, there are many other characters who get almost as much screen time. Haj is an ambitious businessman who finds ways to rationalize anything and everything he needs to do to achieve his political, financial and personal goals. For instance, he wants another sexual outlet but doesn’t want to end his marriage, so, with clerical blessing, he secretly takes as a second wife a young widow with a child who will be totally dependent on him.

There is a middle-aged, well off gay man who seduces a married young soldier, and tries to overcome the soldier’s ambivalence about continuing their dalliance any way he can, including by paying to move his wife and child to Cairo so they can all live nearby.

There is a working class woman, shuffling from dead end job to dead end job, dodging all levels of sexual harassment and other indignities. She and her boyfriend are among those who live on the roof. The boyfriend, the son of a janitor, becomes disillusioned when his class prevents him from being accepted onto the police force and causes him to be ostracized as a college student, and so ends up joining the radical Muslim Brotherhood and training for jihad.

The last subplot about the boyfriend may actually be the least well developed, least realistic, least compelling of all, though it has the most action—violent political demonstrations, gun battles, incarceration, torture, terrorism, etc. It’s still fine, but maybe it needed a whole movie devoted to it, because it feels like it jumps around simplistically at times, skipping some of what likely would have had to happen to make the character’s radicalization more gradual and psychologically believable.

One of the interesting themes of the movie is the role of Islam in these characters’ lives (or I suppose the role of religion in general—some of them are Coptic Christians).

Almost all the characters at least give lip service to living by the tenets of their religion, but from there it varies greatly. The poorer and simpler-minded characters more often equate religious morality with vague notions of just being a good person and living a decent life. For them, Allah is watching so you shouldn’t go around hurting people or doing things that violate your conscience.

For other characters, like Haj, religious morality is a set of restrictions, and one of the skills you need to develop in life is to be able to get everything you want and do everything you want without violating the letter of those restrictions. So it’s not so much that you don’t believe in Islam or think you’re entitled to violate its tenets; you just figure out a way around any inconvenient rules.

Then for the young janitor’s son and his cohorts, of course Islam is politicized and radicalized, giving one something pure to devote oneself to, where no degree of fanaticism is excessive when you’re doing Allah’s work.

But religion is almost always present in the characters’ interactions. Sometimes it’s right on the surface in an explicit, perhaps formal or customary, sort of way, and sometimes it’s a barely discernible undercurrent, but this is very much a society that accepts that life should have a religious basis, however imperfectly and hypocritically that’s put into practice.

Another striking thing is that while Cairo doesn’t look like the greatest place in the world to be a man, women especially get a raw deal.

Then again, maybe not rich women so much, so there’s a big class element to it too. The Pasha’s ex-girlfriend seems to lead a pretty content, non-oppressed existence. And the Pasha’s sister is a bitch who is more victimizer than victim in her tumultuous relationship with the Pasha.

But I’m thinking especially of, for instance, Haj’s second wife, who functions as basically a slave/concubine. Some of the scenes that are emotionally most compelling to me in the movie are those that highlight her powerlessness and the way she never rises above the level of a useful object in Haj’s eyes.

Indeed, the Pasha and Haj can be seen as parallel characters. At first it’s easy to dismiss them both as unappealing rich folks chasing after much younger women, and I’m sure for a lot of viewers—especially women—they remain equally worthy of contempt.

But not for me. I find the Pasha to be a highly sympathetic character, and his treatment of the women he’s attracted to not disrespectful or dehumanizing at all. Whereas Haj really is an unscrupulous, amoral human being with few if any redeeming qualities.

Overall, The Yacoubian Building is a solid movie. Here and there it gets a little melodramatic or simplistic as the filmmaker perhaps tries a little too hard to provoke certain emotions in conventional ways, but for the most part these are believable, interesting characters involved in interesting storylines.


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