Independent Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla, whose previous dramatic features (including Rags & Tatters, Heliopolis and Microphone) found favour on the festival circuit, takes a swerve into comic territory with this compact, bumpy picaresque set over 12 hours or so in Cairo. Although the dialogue touches occasionally on politics and the repressive authoritarian regime currently in power, the narrative engine is driven largely by a more universally relatable subject: the exposure of a smug member of the elite to the cruelties and petty grifts of the underclass. Think After Hours, but in Arabic, and with more police brutality.
Film director Moe (Karim Kassem) is first met having a tough day at work shooting a commercial for money; he is also being guilt tripped by a photographer friend (Donia Maher) who wants him to help champion the cause of another friend who has been imprisoned for writing a novel using forbidden swear words. Judging by the subtitles, this kind of coarse language is as common among Moe’s diverse circle of acquaintance as it is anywhere else, but the consequences are much more severe for those daring to use it in print (or, presumably, in a film like this).
Although Moe is reluctant to get involved, he’s accidentally ends up getting into all kinds of trouble when a detour made by his working-class taxi driver Mustafa (Sherief El Desouky) introduces him to a feisty sex worker named Toto (Mona Hala, a proper force of nature), who is smart, sexy and as filthy mouthed as it gets.
You hope that the occasional bursts of misogyny and violence Mustafa directs towards Toto are not meant to be endorsed by the director himself. But, like his obvious fictional avatar Moe, who just sits there and watches it all happen, the film itself appears not to castigate or censor such abhorrent treatment of women. Perhaps viewers inside the culture itself may catch what nuance there may be, but I suspect even they might find the film’s stance on class and gender a little muddled, perhaps intentionally.
It also doesn’t help that occasionally there are cutaways to what seems an entirely different film – where a man ends up being nearly lost as sea – scenes that may be from a project Moe abandoned some time ago. Nevertheless, Abdalla’s own jittery handheld camerawork and use of Egyptian pop create a seductive, gritty sense of atmosphere.
• Ext.Night is available on Mubi from 23 November.