A dry, biting tale of a woman, a chicken, and the subversion of the Egyptian patriarchate

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It says a lot as we get to know the woman’s back, hunched over dishes or laundry, against cracked tiles lined with dirty grout, before we take a good look at her worried face. And even then, the eyes of this Egyptian housewife (a superbly self-sufficient Demyana Nassar), mother of two grimy and wriggling little boys, remain downcast as her husband (Samy Bassiouny) barks an order for groceries and carefully hands out the tickets. bankruptcy of a meager offer. It seems, briefly, that Omar El ZohairyWinner of the Cannes Critics’ Week “FeathersWill continue in this vein, in the form of a silent, beautifully framed, well-observed portrayal of the social inequity, misery and subjugation of women in an Egyptian industrial city. But that’s before the husband turns into a chicken.

Weirdness runs through El Zohairy’s hugely impressive and complete feature debut like an electric current, but it’s treated with absolute frankness and unmoved, like a truly black-hearted Aki Kaurismaki or a slightly lighter Adilkhan Yerzhanov. The tonal mix is ​​possible due to the slightly oversized reality he’s already established: As specific as the family’s grubby apartment is, it’s a dystopian city too. The exposed pipelines, crumbling buildings and barren scrub of the location are played out for wry visual humor in wide shots of Kamal Samy’s reserved and laid-back camera work and provide the perfect stage on which to play this irresistibly absurd tale and darker and darker from the slow release. .

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The inexplicable transmogrification of a filthy human into human poultry occurs at a fourth birthday party, when the husband – a much more loving father than a spouse – climbs into a box as part of a trick performed by the shady magician he hired. The magician then takes out of the box a fluffy white chicken (a resplendent creature that will become less and less so as the film progresses), to the applause of the participants, but then finds that he cannot recover the ‘man. What really happened is revealed later – though never logically explained – in a daring and swift turn to the dark side that makes sense of the film’s hard-hitting and disturbing prologue.

In the meantime, the wife (who is never named) must deal with the sudden absence of the breadwinner, take a crash course in caring for chickens, and dutifully do all she can to reverse the fate that he suffered, despite the slowness. the realization that his lot, if not that of his sons, could in fact be greatly improved by this unexpected turn of events. Hope, as Emily Dickinson might write if she reviewed this film with a provocative and subversive feminist air, is a thing with feathers.

Money is the most acute of her problems, especially since her husband’s owner-boss refuses to give her back wages, or allow her to work for him. With several months of past due rent and plenty of charlatan wizards, spellcasters and vets to pay, not to mention the hungry mouths of her sons – and the beak of her newly indented husband – to feed, the wife is left to feed. first thanks to the charity of friends and relatives. But soon darker agendas are revealed, especially from one of his benefactors who wants more than a small quid pro quo. Finding work is not easy and she has a few jobs before landing a relatively stable job. cleaning. His bundle of stolen goods – a few chopped pieces of meat, a half-full jar of jam – is pitiful, but provokes no mercy.

Sparkling little touches abound like inexpensive garland decorations for a party: a soundtrack featuring both “Popcorn” and a hilarious and inappropriate muzak cover of the “Love Story” theme; an unusual fondness for downtrodden-looking animals – chickens, of course, but also cows, donkeys, and a rather aggressive circus monkey – roaming the background. And if the rhythm drags a bit in the final stretches, Samy’s marvelous textured photograph keeps us captivated, her quirky framing making as many rusty window bars and silver turned brown and suede-like with age as terribly pieces. dismal and scuffed. and considerably dusty exteriors.

The men are, of course, mildly damned by the abrupt manner in which they push the woman away or attempt to take charge, but the taciturn script, co-written by El Zohairy and Ahmed Amer, never exaggerates the angle of view. vis-à-vis the patriarchy. Instead, as the film moves towards its wickedly dark and satisfying conclusion, the woman’s demeanor changes so microscopically you could almost miss it. It’s just that suddenly she seems less like trying to fade away from every scene and withdraw from every room (Nassar’s ability to control the screen while still seeming to turn away from it is weird. ). This makes “Feathers” less of a story of revenge than of nascent, albeit dubiously grounded, self-esteem, as well as a radical reinterpretation of the meaning and inference of the term “pecked hen”.

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