CANNES 2012: Yousry Nasrallah’s AFTER THE BATTLE
Governments are inherently evil. Commoners are redeemable imbeciles. Academics are clueless do-gooders. These cookie-cutter generalizations about character motivation and social institutions define Yousry Nasrallah’s After the Battle, an abrasively loud melodrama set in post-Mubarak Egypt that equates dramatic importance with collective self-pitying. It takes a special kind of dud to make the immediacy of the Arab Spring seem trite and spineless, especially since the ripples from that massive uprising still reverberate throughout the Middle East. But that’s exactly what After the Battle achieves. It expresses nearly every theme, emotion, and motif through an onslaught of extreme verbal posturing. Considering the consistency with which arguments crystallize out of nowhere in After the Battle, one wonders if Nasrallah thinks the louder his characters get, the more relevance their words will have. Talk about beating a dead horse.
Speaking of horses, the film opens with viral video footage taken during “The Battle of the Camel” in Tahrir Square from March of 2011, in which riders on horses and camels crashed through the crowds of protesters, smacking them with whips. One of the assailants is ripped from his saddle, only to be beaten repeatedly by a gathering of bystanders. This raw prologue successfuly establishes After the Battle as a movie of the moment. But that vitality sours when Nasrallah centers the narrative on the downed horseman, a gullible tourist guide from Nazlat named Mahmoud (Bassem Samra), who has become an outcast for opposing the revolution. When an NGO doctor named Rim (Meena Chalaby) takes an interest in Mahmoud’s conflicted back-story, After the Battle uses their lifeless tryst to explore relevant issues of class and gender still affecting the Egyptian social landscape.
The connection between interpersonal relationships and national trauma fails to gain any traction in After the Battle, mostly because Nasrallah only scratches the surface of his country’s ongoing identity crisis. He simply mixes volatile Youtube footage with fictional dramatic scenarios through amateurish cross-cutting, creating a toothless docudrama whuch is at its most artificial when it tries to be edgy, pointed, and immediate. Juxtaposition like this only reinforces the typical stereotypes perpetrated by Hollywood for years. The region may be different, but all the tropes are the same.
If the high volume of After the Battle’s emotional theatrics doesn’t kill you, its incessant self-pity certainly will. One particularly heinous example comes during a knock-down drag-out fight between Mahmoud and his wife, who yell aimlessly back and forth with their children sitting uncomfortably in the other room. Mahmoud's weepy emotional breakdown at the end of the argument is altogether unconvincing and unearned. After the Battle becomes one big self-serving metaphor during its painfully blunt final moments, when a bloodied Mahmoud envisions himself climbing a pyramid. The wide shot slowly tilts upward, away from his small figure, lingering on the massive distance he still must cover to reach the pyramid's top. The multi-dimensional dynamics of political and social transition in Egypt deserve something better than this kind of one-note symbolism, but Nasrallah, at least in this film, seems incapable of delivering anything else.
Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.