THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS, aka AL-MUMMIA (1969, dir. Chadi Abdel Salam)

(Source: NYU Abu Dhabi)
(Source: NYU ABU DHABI)

Continuums are full of tension, and a large source of that tension is caused by the act of preservation. The links between the past, present and future can be fluid, but as long as we exist in an ever-present transition of space and time, there will be resistance. Survival is always a struggle, for instance.

Yet our species encounters the transcendent. Sometimes it’s human-made, caused by a grandiose desire to live beyond death. Whatever the case, the eternal causes awe or terror or both. And interfering with the eternal can result in disorder.

However portentous/pretentious these opening statement may seem, they are meant to encapsulate themes of The Night of Counting the Years, aka Al Mummia, an Egyptian film that was voted as the number one Arab film of all time[1] but has been virtually unseen in the West. Hopefully, due to it being restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Night will find a wider, more international audience.

(Source: Nisimazine)
(Source: Nisimazine)

Playing like a more contained and terrestrial 2001: A Space Odyssey—which was released a year prior (something was in the air at the time)—Night’s story concerns a true event: the 1881 archeological discovery of a hidden trove of ancient Egyptian antiquities that included 40 mummies that belonged to a line of Pharaohs. Yet the story isn’t told primarily from the point-of-view of state-sponsored archeologists who retrieved the antiquities (i.e Mohamed Khairi plays Kamal, who is presumably based on the real archeologist Ahmed Kamal) but from the perspective of members of the Horabat tribe that both guarded and plundered the trove in the Deer al-Bahary Mountain.

Wannis (Ahmed Marei), the heir of the tribe’s deceased leader, has a crisis of conscience after his elders reveal the trove’s location to him. Should he maintain the secret while selling the antiquities to the black market so that his tribe may survive on the profit, as the elders encourage, or should he respect the tomb’s heritage by somehow stopping the desecration? Will he be a leader in the present or a preserver of the sacred, almost cursed, past?

Of course, the solution is obvious, but the dramatic conflict, as well as the story’s uncanny implications, is presented in a way that gets under your skin. Throughout the film, division is visualized as compositional tension occurs between characters, their surroundings and each other, particularly in scenes involving Wannis. In effect, spaces are seen but also felt. Also, characters often seem enclosed and dwarfed by the film’s atavistic and mysterious setting, as if the weight of time is holding them down and giving them little room to move. And, as lilacs are scattered on Wannis’s father’s grave in an insert shot at the beginning, the color of lilac selectively ornaments the film’s sparse and neutral color scheme, as though to remind him (and, subliminally, the audience) of his grief and hereditary debt.

The film is deliberate and entrancing in its pace, conveying a slow movement of time, and there’s the resonant Mario Nascimbene score, which is atonal, ambient and disquieting. While the camera and/or figures in the frame move laterally, presumably as a way to evoke the reading of a hieroglyphic passage, Night is also strangely holographic. It is multidimensional in tone.

(Source: Night in the Lens.)
(Source: Night in the Lens.)

It isn’t surprising that director Abdel Salam studied Architecture at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo as Night’s visual schema is as sturdy and magnificent as the ancient structures that appear in the film (even if there are some shots use a zoom lens, a too-prevalent motif of 60’s and 70’s cinema.) Salam also studied English literature at Alexandria’s Victoria College, which also fits as Night’s plot has a united, classical form. But that form contains a sense of historical perspective as the film is about people becoming overwhelmed by history. Furthermore, Night is a period piece made in the late 60’s. Hence, it’s made by and about people who are looking to the past for the sake of assessing cultural identity.

Yet the film implies these issues but does not provide any concrete answers. It intends to maintain the mystery, and change-disguised-as-stasis is the only thing that seems to proceed. Yet, as the final images in the film imply, memory can glide over time’s river like a buoyant vessel. Thus, our ability to create continuity is a means for us to reckon with the eternal while respecting its power. And as suggested by a quote that is superimposed over the film’s last shot, it may sustain us: “Rise for you will not perish, you have been called by your name. You have been resurrected.”

Highly recommend. Here’s to hoping that the Criterion Collection releases a second World Cinema Project DVD box set that contains The Night of Counting the Years. [2]

*******

[1] By a group of 500 prominent film critics, writers, novelists, academics and other arts professionals for the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013.

[2] Much of the information in this article came from the screening notes that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences provided at their screening of Night that I attended. In turn, those notes quote Samir Farid’s book Cinema of Passion extensively.

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