Kids These Days: The Family Affairs of “Empire M”
By Michael Barrett
Hussein Kamal’s Egyptian classic Empire M (1972) is an absorbing look at life in transition from tradition to modernity, as seen from the perspective of a woman balancing work and family. As a sign of how popular and acclaimed the film was, Egypt submitted it for Academy Awards consideration in 1974 but it didn’t make the foreign nominee list. Fifty years later, it still fascinates, both for how of its time it is and how it resonates today. There’s always something hopping in this movie, and it refuses to wrap up anything neatly.
Twenty years pass in the first few minutes, in a flurry of scenes presented in mostly single takes. The first shot finds young Mona (Faten Hamama) embodying a confident young woman in a pretty dress. She sits demurely in a comfortable armchair and delivers a speech to her nodding father as the camera dollies closer to her.
She declares that her father paid for her college education so she could live independently and make informed decisions, and now she’s choosing her own husband. In her society, this will mean leaving her father’s house. These are classic statements of modernity in a traditional society: higher education for women, self-determination, and marriage for love.
In rapid glimpses, she has given birth to four sons and two daughters, all having names starting with M, and then her husband dies. By the time the opening credits arrive, playing a lush recurring theme reminiscent of Michel Legrand, the husband is ten years gone, and the oldest kids are in college (and veritable 1970s fashion plates).
The oldest is the muscular Mostafa (Khaled Abol Naga), whose tight outfits and teen heart-throb mode make him ready for Tiger Beat. He’s studying law. The daughters are mostly dealing with boyfriends and hogging the phone, and mom berates them for wearing jeans or mini skirts instead of respectable dresses, so she’s clearly got her own traditional issues. Still, she contrasts with her visiting mother (Dawlad Abiad), who’s mystified by what the modern generation is getting up to.
Kudos to the film for showing Mona as a competent supervisor of public schools, a position she’s worked up to from teaching. One of the early snippets shows the pregnant Mona addressing a classroom about the rise of Islamic nations. Now that she has so much power, she’s shown in frustration trying to deal with problems and shortages in public education.
The film notes some contradictions between her progressive public stance and her family affairs. She’s fanatical about the notion that her kids need to spend most of their time studying and they aren’t allowed to leave the house without her permission. Also, she’s very much an aspirational upper-class product of privilege who lives in a large house with three servants. That’s par for the course in Egyptian mainstream cinema, but this screenplay doesn’t ignore the point.
In postwar Italy, critics referred to “white telephone” movies, those melodramas where the characters’ status was indicated by having telephones, and usually the phones were white and chic. Empire M is the Egyptian equivalent, and the phone continually signals strife, anxiety, privilege, and competition. At one point, Mona wonders if the problem can only be solved by everyone having a phone. “Seven telephones!” she exclaims, calling upon the heavens to imagine such an absurd fantasy.
The radicalized Mostafa lectures about freedom from the influence of capital, calling ownership of capital the basis of dictatorship. He even wants the servants to sit at the table with them. Almost every scene has serious back-and-forth discussions about power, money, and freedom. Imagine an episode of The Brady Bunch with debates on dialectical materialism. In general, Mona’s kids represent a younger generation chafing for freedom under the dictatorship of the parent, and this microcosm symbolizes the larger political atmosphere. There’s much business about sneaking cigarettes and beer; the mom also smokes while trying to discourage it.
Censorship and parental disapproval of books, music, clothes, and accessories target the desires of youth, so Empire M presents its ideas as generational struggles. The movie comes down upon the side of the traditional in certain ways, but it does so by raising these issues seriously and by depicting Mona as caught between her mother’s more conservative generation and her daughters’ expectations of liberty, as well as being caught between her responsibilities to her job and to her children.
Empire M has a major plotline involving Mona’s persistent suitor, a successful businessman named Ahmad (Ahmed Mazhar). The movie leaves the depth of their relationship to our imagination, although Mona says at one point that they’ve done nothing to be ashamed of (though that might be the screenplay hedging conservative bets). They meet at the pyramids, one smaller than the other like husband and wife, carrying the symbolism of traditional entombment.
Mona feels much angst about telling the kids, who digest the information with sobriety. Another movie might offer marriage as a happy ending, but there’s more going on under the surface here. Mona may have reason to suspect that marriage wouldn’t solve her problems, especially when Ahmad makes a remark implying that she may have political ambitions in the ministry. He seems annoyed that she spends so much attention on family and career instead of on him. This is one of many examples where the movie raises issues to examine them and leaves them unresolved instead of wrapping things up tidily.
Starting her career as a child actress (and later married to Omar Sharif), Faten Hamama is a gifted actress whose sympathetic performance holds the film together through its many characters and strands. Almost completely unknown to American audiences, Hamama is one of the most important and iconic actresses in Egypt, and many of her films reflect the changing role of women in society.
The same can be said for the long history of Egyptian cinema. Hussein Kamal is among its most important directors, along with Youssef Chahine, Salah Abu Seif, Togo Mizrahi, Mahmoud Zulfikar, Henry Barakat, and others largely unknown in the West. Any attempt to introduce non-Egyptian viewers to this history must be welcomed as long overdue.
About the Author
Michael Barrett has written about film for decades, and for more than 20 years wrote a monthly video column in the San Antonio Express-News. National publications include Video Watchdog, Nostalgia Digest and a colorful piece in Retro Cinema on American No-Sex Comedies. His film scripts include one about a wallaby and a zeppelin that’s had favorable reception. To read more of his work, check him out at PopMatters.