What is Fawzeya’s secret recipe? It’s what you get when you throw a humorous spin on “Hena Maysara with an Egyptian version of “Woman on Top, a little bit of “Ghost, a woman playing “El Hajj Metawli and a few unsexy shower scenes.
While Elham Shahin’s debut as a producer and her latest starring role, for which she won the Best Actress Award in the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, in “Khaltet Fawzeya (Fawzeya’s Secret Recipe) – one of three Egyptian contributions to the festival’s Arab Films Competition – isn’t exactly a recipe for success, it’s not a complete failure either.
Set in the slums of Cairo, under a commanding bridge, a smoggy sky and surrounded by the murky waters of the Nile, the film follows the untraditional life of Fawzeya (Elham Shahin), a strong, sympathetic and wildly optimistic woman vigorously searching for Mr Right.
She wastes no time with the wrong guy. In the opening scenes, we see Fawzeya unceremoniously throwing out her first husband and demanding a divorce. We cut to a firefighter rescuing her from a burning building whom she proposes to, briefly marries and quickly divorces. Enter fish salesman: man number three, marriage number three and divorce number three. Then comes Sayed (Ezzat Abou Ouf), who at first seems like the one, but quickly gets the boot.
She finally settles down with the much younger husband number five, Houda (Fathy Abdel-Wahab), a truck driver she meets while transporting Sayed’s coffin to its final resting place. Unfortunately, this is not the last we see of Abou Ouf, who for the rest of the movie plays a superfluous and inexplicable role of a ghost in a tuxedo, slicked hair and a red rose who incessantly haunts Fawzeya.
Fawzeya maintains an open, friendly relationship with her ex-husbands, who gather at her house for a weekly dinner and some quality time with their respective children. At first their comfortable relationship is a nuisance for Houda, who gets in their face as they reminisce about her lingerie around the dinner table. She holds him back and, in what seems to be the films’ catchphrase, says, “It’s ok, they’re my brothers.
But Fawzeya always gets her way, forcing Houda to subdue his macho jealous streaks and befriend the three men.
Scriptwriter Hanaa Ateya and director Magdi Ahmad Ali, of “Asrar El-Banat (Girls Secrets, 2001), built the plot around the trials and tribulations of these core characters, their poverty-stricken existence as well as those of their neighbors – who all share a public bathroom.
One of the central characters is Fawzeya’s neighbor and close friend Noussa (Ghada Abdel Razek) whose overt sexual frustration leads her to unabashedly ask to borrow Houda for two nights a week. Meanwhile, throughout the movie Nagwa Fouad’s character – also Fawzeya’s neighbor – is obsessed with buying and preparing the perfect grave with the help of the local grocer-slash-boyfriend.
The characters’ stories intertwine in a way that is meant to weave a comedic and dramatic plotline, but not all of the film’s highs and lows hit home.
Without overtly stating so, the film is a condemnation of a government incapable of providing the masses with basic housing, utilities, jobs and services. Like the millions of Egyptians living beneath the poverty line, Fawzeya and her entourage end up having to do these things themselves.
In one scene, Houda attempts to build Fawzeya a private bathroom only to have it demolished by a bulldozer that’s bigger than most of the surrounding houses. Leading the security force is a young man who gets a scolding from Fawzeya about how they’re not asking anything of the government, how the only place for them is on the margins of society so they should just be left in peace.
The film utilizes a number of juxtapositions, some more obvious than others. In a couple of scenes, we see a small poster from President Mubarak’s 2005 presidential campaign hanging on a lamppost. A larger banner is placed more obviously in two other scenes, one hangs on the exposed brick exterior of shabbily built quarters as the residents of the slum neighborhood have an outdoor Ramadan feast surrounded by dilapidated buildings and overflowing mounds of garbage.
A lot of the contrasts are set in a way that is supposed to remind the audience of better times, triggered by Abdel Halim Hafez songs from the golden age of Egyptian cinema.
Elham Shahin’s character is a contrast in itself: It’s rare in Egyptian cinema that a woman is portrayed as being powerful without sacrificing her femininity; who openly embraces her sexuality and independence as well as her need for a husband; who is firm and forgiving at the same time.
She also breaks the mould of being a stigmatized divorcee, or a down-on-her-luck single mother of – I actually lost track of how many children she had after five marriages.
The shower scenes are anything but steamy, they’re actually quite frightening. We see Fawzeya bathing herself, and these are some of many unflattering close-ups of Shahin. Then she gets in the shower with Houda, which looks a bit incestuous because she’s old enough to be his mother. And finally, she bathes her mother, and at this point it’s just sad to see women who were once Egypt’s starlets aging so ungracefully.
For the entire movie, former bellydancer Nagwa Fouad was simply scary, looking less like herself and more like Mohamed Sobhi when he dressed up as a woman in his hit play “El-Joker – wig, makeup and all.
In the end, Fawzeya does not reveal her secret recipe, and the scenes where she sensually smells different fruits is just a pathetic rip off of Penelope Cruz in “Woman on Top. The ghost of Abou Ouf remains a mystery, which led one viewer to dub him “the ghost of the festival. Hala Sedki’s minor role as Houda’s sister adds absolutely nothing to the story.
There will surely be mixed reviews of this film among critics, social commentators, etc., but “Khaltet Fawzeya will be a commercial success among Egyptian moviegoers for its humorous take on the daily struggles of people set against a backdrop of injustice and corruption.