Rarely do debut features play in competition at Cannes. In fact, of the debut features that played in the festival’s most prolific sections in its 71-year history, only two have made the cut in recent years. First was SON OF SAUL and now YOMEDDINE, an emotional roller-coaster that engages, touches and grips its audience with its genuine approach.
An ode to the power of cinema in reminding us what makes us human and why life has so much to celebrate beyond one’s looks, shape or size, A.B. Shawky’s film shows us an Egypt never seen before on film through the eyes of a man cured from leprosy but plagued by a world that never wants him to fit in.
The story opens with Beshay (Rady Gamal), a Christian leper who makes a living collecting valuable items from a garbage dump to then resell them in hopes of never being in need of any financial support he is unlikely to get. When his wife passes away, he questions his life and decides to go on a life-affirming – and changing – journey to find out why his father, who abandoned him by the door of the leper colony, never actually came back from him. He is accompanied by Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz), a black Nubian orphan who finds in Beshay someone he can confide in. The two embark on the perilous journey, not knowing what’s waiting. Along the way, they encounter both kindness and cruelty and question each other’s true motives.
The story might be simple and straightforward but its emotional core is just one of its merits. Symbolism is handled with subtlety, and while mainstream audiences will definitely be moved, the film is a rare example of an Egyptian film that can truly transcend borders and reach international viewers. Its accessible approach and message of tolerance and inclusiveness is one that the world truly needs today at these troubled times when how people look determines how they are judged by countries, regimes and sadly even laws that seek to divide and categorize rather than embrace all.
Technically, the film masterfully depicts Egypt in totally new ways, capturing the beauty at the heart of misery and elegance in the smallest of details. Never shying away from actual filming locations, it feels completely authentic and heartfelt. And above all, it’s not a film that sends political, heavy-handed messages at a time where many Middle Eastern film go that route to create more heft and weight to their narratives. And that’s precisely why YOMEDDINE works – it doesn’t say much about the country where it’s set, but it does say much about humanity and unconditional love.
The film belongs to Rady Gamal, an actual leper who plays Beshay with incredible humanity, grace, and emotion. He fully transports the audience to an immersive and emotional experience and the fact he is an actual leper gives the performance all the more authenticity and creates a powerful emotional core for the film.
The film’s soundtrack is also one of its biggest pluses, as it heightens the emotion and makes Beshay and Obama’s journey truly enjoyable, despite the challenges they face along the way.
Yomeddine means Judgement Day in Arabic, a day where all will be equal as religious people believe in the Middle East. YOMEDDINE wonders whether compassion can bring it much sooner.
Verdict: Emotional, gripping and wonderfully anchored by a tremendous Rady Gamal, YOMEDDINE is a work of great beauty, depth, and humanity.