“Fallen Angels Paradise” is a brutal and uncompromising Egyptian drama that dives head-first into the muck and misery of the Cairo underworld and emerges with a vision of parallel universe which mirrors polite society in a warped parody of the basic concepts of friendship and loyalty. A genuinely frightening film which never pulls punches or sugar-coats its plotlines, “Fallen Angels Paradise” presents a rare, uncensored view of modern Egypt in the boldest cinematic language imaginable.
“Fallen Angels Paradise” opens in a seedy cafe in a less-than-desirable Cairo neighborhood. Three cretinous thugs are busy gambling and insulting each other, pausing only to paw a friendly prostitute who enjoys their rough company. Another figure, a sleeping disheveled drug addict named Tabel, is clutching a bottle and lying still in a chair at the cafe with an obscene grin on his face. The gamblers and their gal-pal try to wake him, but only succeed in loosening the bottle from his cold hand. Tabel has died…with a smile on his face.
The street rats decide to make a quick slice of cash by selling Tabel’s corpse to a medical school; an earlier attempt to make fast money by extracting and selling his gold teeth is thwarted when they discover the gold is a fake. But unknown to this crowd is the rare decency by Hobba (the extraordinarily beautiful actress Lebleba), an older prostitute for whom Tabel pimped and who sincerely loved the dead man. Hobba contacts Tabel’s family, an upper-class bunch whose bourgeois existence Tabel abandoned years ago for a life on the streets. Tabel’s icy, urbane daughter reclaims her father’s body before it can be sold and brings it home to be cleaned and dressed for a proper funeral. However, Tabel’s street cronies (drunk and stoned beyond sanity) crash his wake and spirit away his corpse, insisting that Tabel is still alive. This sorry squadron, joined by the two prostitutes, drags the body about Cairo in a night of perverse and increasingly violent partying.
“Fallen Angels Paradise” is a grim tale which asks angry questions about the dignity of life and death; wisely, it leaves the audience to ponder the answers for itself. The film’s most riveting scene is the long ride in which Tabel’s daughter and Hobba drive together to identify the dead man’s remains.
The daughter is an Egyptian modern woman to the extreme: dressed to kill in a western-style jacket and mini-skirt, without a head scarf, chain smoking cigarettes and talking to people with icy authority. Her mind is an endless internal monologue on her father’s mysterious desertion and its effects on her life, mixed with a combination of fascination and disgust over the notion Tabel could favor the prostitute Hobba over her mother. Hobba, dressed in the traditional Egyptian mourning clothing, is even more deferential to Tabel in death. She sits silently, the weight of her crushed world captured in the pain of her tear-rich eyes. The two women, worlds apart in so many ways, share a tenuous common bond yet cannot find the space to join together in mourning. It is a heartbreaking commentary on the fragility of human existence and how the death of a loved one can often create a new life sentence of bitterness and grief for the living.
Beautifully photographed by Tarek el Telmessani, with a subtle score by Fathi Salama, “Fallen Angels Paradise” is a technically sophisticated production. The film opens theatrically in New York in early February, making it one of the very few Egyptian films to play commercially in the United States, and with luck it can help usher in a new wave of North African films into American theaters. This is an excellent, provocative work of art which deserves to be seen and will certainly be debated by those who experience its power and fury.