The Night of Counting the Years

Yesterday I saw the Egyptian film The Night of Counting the Years screened by the Auckland Film Society at the Rialto in Newmarket. It's the second time I've seen it; the same print, in a rather better condition than it is now, was shown by the Wellington Film Society circa 1975 or 6. The film was made by Shadi Abdel Salam in 1970, the only feature he completed; he was an architect by training and profession, who worked in film as an art director and costume designer and got his chance to direct through the good offices of Roberto Rossellini. I guess it's always risky going back to see a film you loved when you were young, but in this case there was no shadow of disappointment and, probably, I enjoyed it even more than I did when I first saw it all those years ago. While the technical quality wasn't as high, because of wear on the print, the screenplay, the performances, the cinematography, the art direction were of an order I simply wouldn't have appreciated then. It is a wonderful film. From the first shot - a sepulchral reading from the Book of the Dead at a meeting of archaeologists in Cairo - to the last - the hero, Wannis, covering his face and stumbling away up the shores of the Nile at Thebes - it has a gravitas which never falters. Shadi Abdel Salam told Rossellini he wanted to make an undramatic film, by which I think he meant he didn't want lots of action or dialogue, because there's very little of either in El Mumia, as it's also known. What it has instead is an inexorable fatality, as Wannis, the younger son of Selim, the recently deceased chief of his tribe, step by step approaches the only possible course of action open to him: the betrayal to a young archaeologist from Cairo of the whereabouts of a cache of sarcophagi of three dynasties of pharoahs, removed from their tombs in the Valley of the Kings 3000 years before and hidden in a hill on tribal lands. The tribe has, since time immemorial, plundered these sarcophagi for artefacts to sell on the black market for cash; but as the old generation passes, the young are appalled to learn that their bread came from the dead, and revolt. Much of the film takes place at night - or rather over two nights, with one day in between - and most of it was filmed in amongst the ruins at Thebes. The contemporary (1880s) illiterate Muslim tribespeople do not know who the the ancient Egyptians were, even though they are most likely their direct descendants; their writing cannot be read and their names are unknown. This theme of naming runs throughout the film and is echoed in the old ones' own beliefs: without a name, there is no rebirth and therefore no immortality. The Night of Counting the Years in its hieratic grandeur, pathos and - yes - tragedy, takes me back to Alan Brunton's The Excursion. Alan wasn't Egyptian, and in fact I don't even think he went there, but there is in his stage scenario the same gravitas, the same sense of inevitability and the same splendour as you find in The Night of Counting the Years.


Benjamin Geer said...

The film can be downloaded here:


Benjamin Geer said...

Let's get that link right. The film can be downloaded here.

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