Erected in downtown Cairo in 1934, the Yacoubian apartment building was one of the largest, most luxurious edifices of its day. Over the years, however, the building fell into disrepair, and the rooftop dwellings that had been used as servants' quarters were rented out to the destitute and downtrodden. Torn between attempts to modernize and entrenched Islamic tradition, Egypt saw soaring poverty.
Much as the edifice named for its Armenian builder came to represent a cross-section of Egyptian society, "The Yacoubian Building" weaves narrative strands into a dense, diverse tapestry, and the film by the young director Marwan Hamed serves as a commentary on contemporary Egypt -- with salient debates about religious fundamentalism, gender roles, tradition versus modernity, homosexuality, political corruption, even abortion. Coming from a culture where many of these topics are taboo, it's nothing short of groundbreaking.
It's perhaps appropriate that a film about the residents of one of the most expensive buildings of its era also happens to be the costliest Egyptian film. Just 28 when he made this, his first feature, Hamed assembled a cast of some of Egypt's most celebrated actors (albeit largely unknown to Western audiences). The script, adapted by veteran screenwriter Waheed Hamed (the director's father) from the popular novel by Alaa' Al Aswany, follows several disparate characters.
The Yacoubian's residents include Zaki Pasha (Adel Imam), an over-the-hill playboy evicted from the family apartment by his overbearing sister (Issad Younis); Hatem Rasheed (Khaled El Sawy), a gay newspaper editor who seduces a handsome young soldier (Bassem Samra); Haj Azzam (Nour El Sherif), a sexually frustrated, outwardly religious millionaire who takes a young widow (Somaya El Khashab) as a second wife but exposes his selfishness and hypocrisy when he forces her to have an abortion; Taha (Mohamed Imam), a roof-dwelling youth who turns to religious extremism. Bridging the tales, the lovely, desperately poor Bosnaina (Hind Sabry), leaves her first love, Taha, when he becomes obsessed with Islam and finds a job working for Zaki, who, newly chastened, is the first man to treat Bosnaina with respect.
Hamed balances these story lines with skill, elicits credible performances from his cast, and deftly handles variations in tone and scale. At times, the film, Egypt's official Oscar submission, is epic in scope. At others, it's intimate and tender. At more than 2 1/2 hours, "The Yacoubian Building" is nothing if not long. But it's a window into a culture that few of us get to see.
Unrated. Run time: 2 hours, 38 minutes. In Arabic with English subtitles. Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. (323) 848-3500.