by Lisa Lieberman
Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, who died this week, excelled at playing passionate characters whose humanity was at war with their idealism. Here I will discuss three memorable films from different phases of his career.
A Man in Our House
You can tell that the director of A Man in our House, Henri Barakat, learned his trade in Paris. Here's the story: during the period of British colonial rule, a student radical, Ibrahim Hamdy (played by Omar Sharif) assassinates the Egyptian prime minister. Beaten by the authorities, he manages to escape with the help of his fellow radicals and takes refuge with an ordinary middle-class family.B
The film has the feel of a classic French thriller. Claustrophobic scenes inside the family's Cairo apartment alternate with shots of the Egyptian police as they close in on Ibrahim. The sleazy cousin finds out that the family is harboring a terrorist and threatens to reveal him to the authorities. A romance blossoms between Ibrahim and Nawal, the youngest daughter. Of course it ends tragically, with Ibrahim sacrificing himself for the cause. But freedom is dearer than life, and Nawal understands this.
While the genre is French, the movie's message is staunchly Egyptian. Keep in mind that A Man in our House was made under Nasser, in response to the ruler's call for a new nationalist cinema. Who could resist an opportunity to use film not simply to entertain, but to educate and unite a population? “The people judged him,” Ibrahim says, justifying the assassination of the prime minister as an act of political protest; “I carried out the execution.”
For all its polemics, Barakat's attention to the details of daily life gives the film an authentic feel. We see the family gathering around the dinner table to break their fast during Ramadan. We observe the rules, spoken and unspoken, governing interactions between the sexes, witness the children's respect for their parents, the responsibility the father feels for protecting his family even as his nascent patriotism is awakened. All of this is conveyed so naturally that we forgive A Man in our House its melodramatic aspects. And when the sleazy cousin regains his dignity by identifying with the cause of independence, we're moved by the way he explains his sudden change of heart: “The man I was turning in sacrificed his life for my pride.”