SIFF’s program notes states that The Night of Counting the Years (1969, Egypt), directed by Chadi Abdel Salam, is “universally recognized as one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made,” a statement that isn’t quite accurate. I’m not refering to the “greatest” part of that statement, just that it is “universally recognized” for anything.
While it is indeed considered an Egyptian cinema masterwork by those with some expertise in the field, this is not a film that has been close to universally seen, which makes its appearance here all the more notable. All but unavailable for years (I had the good fortune to see a 16mm print at the Seattle Arab Film Festival in 2000, which even faded and worn communicated the great power of the film), a new restoration was undertaken in conjunction with the international offshoot of The Film Foundation founded by Martin Scorsese and a high-quality DCP digital print was shown at SIFF. (Given some of the issues with digital presentation at the festival this year, I am pleased to report that this was a stellar screening; any weaknesses in the image quality were clearly those of the original film materials.)
The story is inspired by a real-life incident of an isolated mountain tribe in the late 19th century that was secretly selling off ancient artifacts from the tombs of the Pharaohs, specifically a cache of mummies hidden in the mountain caves to hide them from looters, which the government discovers after the recovery of one of the treasures. The drama ostensibly sets the government against the insular tribe, where the elders justify the looting of its own culture to sustain the people (as well as enrich themselves), but it’s the reaction of the young men to this tribal secret that fires the film. They are appalled at the desecration of their ancestors and their refusal to be a part of it marks them as enemies of the tribe. Not an ideal situation in such an insular culture.
This is no detective story or an action film. Salam opens and end the film on hushed processions, the first of which appears to be a holy rite and turns out to be the equivalent of a mob ritual conducted in protective secrecy, the latter a secular march that takes on the dignity and integrity of religious observance as the dawn breaks and the sun shines an approving light on their mission. These two processions define Salam’s theme of identity, from the tribe in isolation of the first to the national and cultural unity of Egypt in the latter.
The film is measured and stylized, not so much theatrical as constructed in cultural modes of formal conduct. Every conversation is layered in levels of status and respect and power, even when the youth rebels against the traditions of the elders, and director Salam sets them against stark, austere setting, from the blank landscape of the desert to the Spartan surroundings of cave-like rooms dug out of the mountains of this village. The quality of light in the desert scenes is breathtaking, especially in the final minutes, as the dawn breaks and the silhouettes against the sky slowly light up. And while this risky bit of cultural rescue is carried out like a military mission in hostile territory, it is directed like a holy (and non-violent) crusade, an Egyptian answer to a Bressonian cinema of simplicity and grace.
[Editor’s Note: My coverage of the Seattle International Film Festival is cross-posted at The House Next Door.]