In The Aquarium, a fishbowl carved out of desert rock gives Yousry Nasrallah’s film its title as well as its presiding image of urban malaise. Fittingly, the characters are loose metaphors floating through a modern, Cairo-set panorama, none more symbolically than the two serenely discombobulated protagonists. Leila (Hend Sabri) hosts a late-night talk radio show called Night Secrets, while Youssef (Amr Waked), one of her loyal listeners, is a successful anesthetist. She gives advice to lovelorn (and sexlorn) callers, he blithely injects himself with morphine to convince his most stubborn patients (including his own ailing father) to take their sedatives, and both are essentially listeners and healers in a city in flux, but they’re also voyeurs bouncing off other people’s revelations (“Your generation is strange…No restraint. Everything is public domain,” Leila’s mother complains). Nasrallah has the material for a poetic, nocturnal meander along the lines of Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, but he tricks out the narrative with so many scattershot digressions and footnotes that the picture instead comes off like the Egyptian version of I Heart Huckabees. In lieu of Dustin Hoffman using a bed sheet to illustrate life’s connective tissue, there’s the obscure link between sautéed camel’s liver, fourth wall-breaking monologues, and a lion-taming circus act. Bird-flu panic fills the air while protesters line the streets, a debate about rape and abortion is followed by a song, and Leila’s fairy tale about a princess in love with a pigeon takes the form of a silent-movie fable. Just connect? Stacked as high as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Nasrallah’s interlocking meta-episodes are nevertheless kept from collapsing by the director’s light touch, though, considering how claustrophobic this tank ultimately becomes, cracking its walls might not be such a bad thing.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.