Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

Toronto Review: ‘Certified Mail’ is a risky debut with a career-best performance from Egyptian star Basma

Courtesy of TIFF

Hisham Saqr’s debut may not be narratively exciting but it marks an assured debut by a new voice willing to take rare risks in Egyptian cinema

Following some strong collaborations in the Egyptian indie filmmaking scene, most notably with Ahmed Abdulla, Hisham Saqr makes a sophisticated and risky debut with CERTIFIED MAIL, a rare look at women’s mental health in modern-day Egypt, long considered a taboo subject.

In a largely patriarchal society in which women are always seen in the shadow of men, incapable to make their own decisions against how society sees them, CERTIFIED MAIL takes a fascinating protagonist suffering from post-natal depression as an allegory to represent the state of women in a society that fails to see them as human beings just as capable of independence and autonomy as well as undergoing vulnerabilities that either go unnoticed, are considered taboos or are downplayed by their male counterparts who perceive them in mere ‘functional’ roles. They are the wives, the mothers, the teachers – but are they truly seen as human beings?

What makes the subject of women’s mental health a particular rarity in Egyptian – and Middle Eastern – cinema is that it’s usually depicted with comical effect or with shallowness that undermines the stark difference between depression and insanity. With caricature-like characters plaguing such delicate stories in cinema from this region, Saqr create a somber observational, if perhaps too subdued, story that makes for characterization what it lacks in excitement.

Hala (Egyptian star Basma) is a middle class wife who has just delivered her first baby and is undergoing post-natal depression. Her life is mostly indoors, and her past traumas haunt her in her dreams and inescapable real life. When her husband is sent to jail due to a grave error at work, she is left alone with her child to struggle with her own demons and get by on her own.

Sensitively and boldly opting for a pure character study rather than a grand story that makes political statements, Saqr creates a film akin to Mohammed Hammad’s sublime WITHERED GREEN, another observational, almost wordless character study of a decaying young women in male-dominated Egypt. Focusing the camera on Hala for the majority of the runtime, the film seems more interested in following her ups and downs and complex mental state than telling a more conventional story that engages audiences with dramatic fireworks. This decision delivers mixed results – on one hand, the film remains true to his lead character’s trajectory and inner thoughts, giving us a window into what could be the case for millions of women who struggle with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts (suicide is on the rise in Egypt with more people opting to take their lives annually amid a grim financial and societal backdrop).

Conversely, the film’s quiet tone, devoid of almost any major incidents that could twist the narrative, the film becomes perhaps too subdued and in the process risks becoming stale. The story’s resolutions also emerge as somewhat unearned, as the script needed to flesh out some of the surrounding characters and Hala’s process of healing instead of positioning her in a reactionary spot for large portions of the script. Healing is a decision and a choice, argues the screenplay, but just as the script pays attention to what went wrong in Hala’s psyche, a little more work on her liberation could have helped the film gain more accessibility. A final remarkable scene in which Hala finally engages in a confrontation is well delivered but the question is whether the film – and character – needed more moments like these to reshape her mental and emotional state.

Basma delivers a career-best performance as Hala, particularly because the script does not – almost deliberately – lend her any theatrics or catharsis. In a most wordless performance, she convinces in portraying a women on the decline, a shadow-like figure of someone who has stopped seeing the point in living. Supporting performances and technical credits are also solid, particularly the cinematography, smartly alternating between Hala’s grim state of mind and her harsh surroundings.

Verdict: A risky but solid debut feature from an exciting new voice in Egyptian cinema, CERTIFIED MAIL will be appreciated by curious art-house audiences looking for daring, unconventional Middle Eastern cinema.

Grade: B-

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