Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – There is a scene in the Egyptian film ‘Hassan and Morqos’ starring veteran Egyptian comedian Adel Imam and the legendary Omar al Sharif in which they are both charged with an unknown crime and locked up in the bakery that they run together. After that we see them at the police station followed by a court scene in which they are put on trial, however they are then released under the same mysterious circumstances.
No real logic seems to govern the events as the plot unfolds except what appears to be the scriptwriter’s desire to unite these two characters by a similar fate in director Ramy Imam’s summer blockbuster. However, it soon becomes clear that their fates are indeed tied and this becomes the common thread that runs throughout the story that attempts to illustrate that Egyptians share the same fate irrespective of their religions and beliefs and that they must confront their problems as a united front.
Although the inherent Muslim-Christian tension between Egypt’s Muslim majority and its Coptic Christian minority (an estimated 10 percent) has been tackled through films before; ‘Hassan and Morqos’ is a bolder and more overtly critical satire of the religious extremism and intolerance that bravely treads on thin ice.
So, has the film succeeded in highlighting the importance of national unity and the danger of sectarian conflict within the state?
At the beginning of the movie, the viewer understands that Sheikh Mahmoud (Omar Sharif) is the brother of a chosen emir of an extremist group but that his brother had just died. The group approaches the Muslim cleric to ask him to replace his brother but by refusing; he becomes a target for the fundamentalist group. Sheikh Mahmoud is then forced, upon the instructions of an Egyptian State Security officer, to go into hiding along with his family by posing as a Christian family.
With his life equally in danger following an assassination attempt, Boulos (the Coptic Christian priest played by Adel Imam) and his family have to pretend they are a Muslim family as they too go into hiding. And yet the film does not depend on this satirical irony alone. Characters and events bring to the table a significant amount of real and unspoken convictions and tensions within the framework of a story; however, they are bluntly broached.
‘Hassan and Morqos’ dedicates a considerable amount of time to relate the events of Boulos and his family’s trip to Egypt’s al Minya governorate before the two families finally meet. Although it’s only superficial, the duality between the two families is evident but so are their attempts to conceal it; each family is amicable and accommodating of the other believing it to share the same religion. Both Hassan and Morqos (the names they had to take on when they went into hiding) are moderate in their beliefs and live in the same building and even have a joint-business venture together.
Throughout the film, masks and layers continue to fall as the families are forced by circumstances to deal with one another. In the climactic scene, a court scene reminiscent of the one in ‘Al Nasser Salah ad-Din’, the screen is split into two and you see the reactions of the two families upon discovering the truth about their religious affiliations.
But Egypt’s existing extremist religious discourse, intolerance and prejudice are best demonstrated following the conflict that takes place in Alexandria, which compels the two families to unite in what is a purely symbolic scene, which although unrealistic in essence still succeeds in getting the film’s message across. Despite the fact that the film contains a number of convenient coincidences and contradictions, in addition to the heavy-handed development whereby Girgis (Morqos’s son) falls in love with Fatma (Hassan’s daughter); the comedy that results of these plot twists is so amusing and at times downright hilarious that it makes the viewer more open and willing to accept the film’s message. Although some of the ironies may be superficial in nature, they blatantly stress the common ground in the ideology and prayers of both religions but most importantly – it exposes the real people responsible for deepening the sectarian divide in Egyptian society.
Undoubtedly Omar Sharif-Adel Imam union is a winning stellar combination, especially in a production that is witty and very funny but most pertinently; it deals with one of Egypt’s thorniest issues in a very bold manner. ‘Hassan and Morqos’ has sparked a debate in which there is both praise and criticism, the most notable criticism reserved for Adel Imam who was accused of preaching Christianity. But to its credit, the film doesn’t end with a forced happy ending but rather ends on a realistic note to demonstrate that the conflict still exists but that it must be dealt with immediately.