Funny Girl

Watching this film again, I was surprised to find that I still have all the songs memorized.  Blame Gina Weiss, who was obsessed with Barbra Streisand and used to sing the soundtrack to “Funny Girl” during chemistry in eight grade.  It got so all of us at Gina’s table could join in, when we weren’t trying to set the lab on fire.

I’ve liked Streisand in a lot of films over the years, but none of her subsequent roles suited her as well as Fanny Brice.

Fanny Brice: If I can’t tell when you’re ordering roast beef and potatoes, how will I know when you’re making advances?

Nick Arnstein: You’ll know. I’ll be much more direct.

Of course, it helped that she was playing opposite Omar Sharif.  The two began an affair during the shooting of “Funny Girl,” and it shows.  You see it when they finally kiss, in the alley behind Fanny’s mother’s saloon after her first big success as a Ziegfeld girl, and when Nick makes that advance of his, between the paté (chopped liver) and the Boeuf  à la Bordelaise (roast beef).

But you REALLY notice it at the end, when they split up and she sings “My Man.”

Apparently their real-life romance was also ending, with both preparing to return to their respective spouses.  The director, Billy Wilder, kept Sharif on the set while Streisand was singing, just out of sight, because he knew that his presence would bring out her deepest feelings.

Sharif tells the story in his memoir of how the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt broke out while “Funny Girl” was being filmed.  Both Wyler and Streisand threatened to quit if he was removed from the cast.  Wyler, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, made the case most eloquently:  “We’re in America, the land of freedom, and you’re ready to make yourselves guilty of the same things we’re against?”  When the film was released abroad, with a publicity shot showing the two actors kissing, the Egyptian press agitated to get Sharif’s citizenship revoked.  In true Fanny fashion, Streisand got off the best retort:  “Egypt angry!” she said. “You should hear what my Aunt Sarah said!”

Doctor Zhivago

Omar Sharif plays a Russian and “Doctor Zhivago” was shot mostly in Spain by a British director, produced by an Italian.  “Lara’s Theme,” the schmaltzy leitmotif that evokes the Julie Christie character, can still be heard in elevators today.  Why is any of this relevant to the Egyptian revolution?

Let’s start with an early scene:  it is 1912 and a group of workers are demonstrating in the streets of Moscow, led by the idealistic Pasha Antipov, a young social democrat.  An equally young and idealistic Yuri Zhivago watches the scene from a balcony, and witnesses the violence as the workers are mowed down by Cossaks on horseback.  Pasha is radicalized by the event and becomes a revolutionary, lashing out against the regime responsible for such brutality, but growing more ruthless as the story progresses.

Yuri turns away, turns inward.  Each new upheaval in Russia, each act of violence, reaffirms his determination to live, to love, and to create.  Sharif registers pain in those soulful brown eyes.  Unlike Pasha or the commander of the partisan unit that conscripts him later in the picture, his character never loses his humanity, never sacrifices his concern for individuals, their lives, their hopes, their needs in the name of “justice” or some other abstract good.

And so we come to another key scene.  Yuri and Lara have taken refuge in the frozen dacha that belonged to Yuri’s wife’s family.  In the early morning, Yuri sits at his desk writing poems.  Wolves howl at the edge of the property, but inside the frost-starred window, we see the warm glow of Yuri’s candle.  A mere moment of safety, of peace; we know it cannot last.  But the beauty of that moment sustains us.

What stands out most about Egypt’s revolution?  The call for change was courageous, the hopes expressed by the youthful protesters inspiring.  It’s too soon to tell how far the change will reach, or how lasting it will prove to be, but in the protesters’ unwillingness to employ violence as a means to achieve their goals I see the glow of Yuri’s humanity.

(16 February 2011)

A Man in our House

You can tell that the director of “A Man in our House,” Henri Barakat, learned his trade in Paris.  Here’s the story:  during the period of British colonial rule, a student radical, Ibrahim Hamdy (played by Omar Sharif)Man in Our House assassinates the Egyptian prime minister.  Beaten by the authorities, he manages to escape with the help of his fellow radicals and takes refuge with an ordinary middle-class family.

The film has the feel of a classic French thriller.  Claustrophobic scenes inside the family’s Cairo apartment alternate with shots of the Egyptian police as they close in on Ibrahim.  The sleazy cousin finds out that the family is harboring a terrorist and threatens to reveal him to the authorities.  A romance blossoms between Ibrahim and Nawal, the youngest daughter.  Of course it ends tragically, with Ibrahim sacrificing himself for the cause.  But freedom is dearer than life, and Nawal understands this.

While the genre is French, the movie’s message is staunchly Egyptian.  Keep in mind that “A Man in our House” was made under Nasser, in response to the ruler’s call for a new nationalist cinema.  Who could resist an opportunity to use film not simply to entertain, but to educate and unite a population?  “The people judged him,” Ibrahim says, justifying the assassination as an act of political protest; “I carried out the execution.”

For all its polemics, Barakat’s attention to the details of daily life gives the film an authentic feel.  We see the family gathering around the dinner table to break their fast during Ramadan.  We observe the rules, spoken and unspoken, governing interactions between the sexes, witness the children’s respect for their parents, the responsibility the father feels for protecting his family even as his nascent patriotism is awakened.  All of this is conveyed so naturally that we forgive “A Man in our House” its melodramatic aspects.  And when the sleazy cousin regains his dignity by identifying with the cause of independence, he explains his sudden change of heart in terms that resonate with the events in Tahrir Square.  “The man I was turning in sacrificed his life for my pride.”

(20 February 2011)

Monsieur Ibrahim

It’s tempting to view the title character of this film as the last in a progression of Omar Sharifs. The young firebrand of “A Man in our House” makes way for the more reflective, but no less passionate Doctor Zhivago.Ibrahim And here we have the seventy-one-year-old Sharif making peace with his past and handing over the mantle of his successful international acting career to the next generation.

“Monsieur Ibrahim” is a sweet, insubstantial film suffused with nostalgia for a Paris that never was. Kind-hearted prostitutes solicit customers on the well-swept streets of a working-class neighborhood against a soundtrack of sixties rock ‘n roll. There’s a whiff (but just a whiff) of anti-Arab feeling, a backstory involving parental abandonment, a suicide that leaves barely a trace on the adolescent hero’s psyche. Momo’s too busy coming of age to drown in his sorrows, especially since he has Sharif’s Turkish shopkeeper character, Ibrahim, as a surrogate father.

The two go off on a jaunt in a red sports car, to visit Ibrahim’s native land. He shows Momo a couple of churches and a mosque. Then he takes him to watch a Sema ceremony in his own Sufi tradition, dervishes whirling around their hearts, as Ibrahim explains the dance. “They lose all their bearings, that burden we call balance.”

Intriguing notion, but nobody loses their balance in this film. We see Ibrahim absorbed in the dance, but as an observer. A close-up of Sharif’s beautiful face: “They become like torches. They burn in a blazing fire,” he tells Momo. That’s the young Omar Sharif talking. The firebrand, the poet, the lover. But this version renounces the dance, ending his journey in the village he left. ”I’ve arrived,” he says on his deathbed. ”I didn’t know.”

And Momo? He goes back to Paris and takes over the shop.

(26 February 2011)