I don’t know much Egyptian film. I watched much of a Youssef Chahine retrospective a few years back, and that’s basically it. I know that Daoud Abdel Sayed started as a Chahine assistant, but that he’s gone on to forge his own identity.
Citizen, Detective, & Thief is my first Abdel Sayed film. At first blush it reminds me of some Bollywood films. It’s colorful, full of song and dance, features a love plot at its core, and has several beats of melodrama. But unlike many of those Indian films, Citizen, Detective, & Thief has some deeper themes on its mind.
The title of the film should clue the viewer in right away. It’s an allegory. Characters within the film do, in fact, have proper names, but they are frequently referred to by their broad societal classifications: citizen, detective, thief. It’s an easy, and not ineffective way for Abdel Sayed to make his film about the entire strata of Egyptian citizenry.
We do, therefore, get a lot of looks at varying parts of society. Some wides, like this one-
-put us right into the cluttered streets.
Other times, Citizen, Detective, & Thief looks like something closer to fantasy, as in these shots, where the director and DP Samir Bahzan push the color temperature to extremes of greens, blues, and yellows:
I think that’s another major point of this film: that it alternates between reality and allegory/fantasy. This is especially true of the final act, but I’ll come to that shortly.
The characters in the film are all hypocrites in some way. The citizen, Selim (Khaled Abol Naga) is rich and ignorant. He sets out to become a novelist…just because. It’s implied later in the film that he’s not actually as great a writer as he might think he is. He also has a largely important line, relayed through the narrator, of how mixing classes is a mistake.
The detective, Fathy (Salah Abdallah) is a violent, gluttonous drunk. He’s ingratiating and manipulative.
The thief, Margoushy (Shabaan Abdel Rehim) is fanatical and often dishonest. His fanaticism comes in the form of book burnings, which reminds me of a great line from Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum: “Even bad books are books, and therefore sacred.” Margoushy doesn’t agree. Some books are bad and deserve to be kindling.
The representations of these characters as such is, of course, intentional. It’s the haughty upper-class, the corrupt police force, and, perhaps, a large percentage of the rest of the population.
The last 30 minutes of Citizen, Detective, & Thief are really curious. This final act coincides with a meeting between Selim and Margoushy. Margoushy has become Selim’s publisher and gives the citizen advice on his new novel. That advice boils down to: “conflict.” You need conflict to move any story ahead.
Whether ironically or not, Abdel Sayed then essentially does away with most any conflict for the remainder of the film. We instead seem to enter some colorful fever dream. The years fly by and miraculously, impossibly…or maybe ridiculously, the citizen, detective and thief all become wildly successful and work together in a heretofore unseen display of cooperation.
So what is this? It feels like the end of Murnau’s The Last Laugh to me: an ending so overblown that it must be fantasy (of course, that ending was forced). This ending melodrama feels, in fact, like the plot of one of Selim’s novels.
I mean, come on. These guys bowl together in ridiculous outfits, laughing and loving life:
Fathy runs for a governmental position and wins. His position as “for the people” is hilariously echoed by the wrenches in his pocket (which fall out and presumably hit people on the head):
The three use their collective power to win Selim the nation’s top literary prize (and, as the narrator tells us, he may not have actually deserved it):
Other oddities occur: Selim becomes more of a hard-liner, starting to write about morals and refusing to allow his daughter to marry for love. The upper class isn’t always what it seems: Selim’s wife Hayat (Hend Sabry) becomes suicidal.
But in true classical musical fashion, when there’s trouble, sing. And that’s how the film progresses and ultimately ends. It’s like those utopian Hollywood musicals from decades ago, where a little song and dance immediately cures what ails ya.
There’s a good message underneath all of this: if we work together, the various classes can get together and make things happen. Society’s walls can come down, and we can move forward. But Abdel Sayed frames it in such a way as to be absurd, casting it in a pessimistic light.