Nonethelss, I dragged my aching head to the theater, and I was glad I did. This Egyptian film starts with a dead body: Tabel, a down-and-out drunkard and pimp, is dead from an unspecified overdose. His friends are a rough bunch, low-lifes who are quick with the knife and spend their time gambling, whoring, and leering like maniacs.
As it turns out, Tabel (played by Egyptian superstar Mahmoud Hemeida) once had a family and a house, a prosperous regular life, all of which he left behind to join the homeless for a neverending party in the seamy underbelly of the night. The friends, led by the prostitute who enjoyed Tabel’s protection, return his body to his daughter, who is hard pressed to recognize her father underneath all the hair and caked dirt. She decides to restore a bit of respectability to the runaway dad and invests in the finest funeral suit and oak casket.
Not easily confined to any one mode of Western storytelling, Fallen Angels Paradise is a farce and a serious look at the nature of wealth and death at the same time. For my taste, the comedy worked much better than the weighty stuff: Tabel’s old friends are lots of fun, the whoremongers and the prostitutes who pry gold teeth from the corpse’s mouth with a knife and whack each other over the head with bottles of booze. They’re Marx Brothers with a hot temper and a switchblade; their scenes cackle with anarchic energy. By contrast, Tabel’s family is not only dull but seems to move in slow-motion. It’s easy to understand why he ran away: he once called his son-in-law “a pig stuffed with dead cats,” and the insult is not altogether unearned.
The poverty is clearly romanticized, but who cares when a bunch of unashamed drunkards drive a stolen corpse around in a doorless truck with such panache? You half expect them to run into one of the characters from Jim Jarmush’s “Night on Earth.” Whores who pour alcohol down dead men’s throats can’t be all bad–and the dead, who occasionally manage a smile in spite of rigor mortis, they know it.
“Fallen Angels Paradise” made me feel good about my hangover. What more can one ask from a movie?
“Fallen Angels Paradise” opens at the Anthology Film Archives in New York on February 1.
Directed by Ossama Fawzi. Screenplay by Moustafa Zekri, based on a novel by George Amado. Starring Mahmoud Hemida, Lebleba, Amr Waked, Serri Al nagar, Salah Fahmi, Safwa. 100 minutes. Arabic with English subtitles.