The Night of Counting the Years

08/21/2011

Egypt / 1969 / Arabic

Directed by Shadi Abdel Salam

With Ahmed Marei, Ahmed Hegazi, Zouzou Hamdi

Still from 'The Night of Counting the Years'Ruins possess a degree of poignancy that is absent from their more preserved brethren, a sadness that is most immediate when one is within them, surrounded by their visual and palpable crumbling, the reduction of form, decay made manifest. The disassembly of an idea or an ideal (either through lapse or calculated erasure) strikes a more powerful chord than the essential concept of impermanence, for, shrouded in the enamels of time, which compose the riverine flow of static eternity, it acquires both the hefty presence of history and the regressive lightness of subtraction. They are stretched past recognition between mass and frailty, throng and silence. Faded cities – or the burnt shadows thereof – get increasingly verbose about all they’ve seen and at the same time more inscrutable with every passing grain of sand. Bukhara and Samarkand are described by some contemporary visitors as museum cities, the past polished and segregated by modern plazas. But ancient Egypt never loses its ragged, sonorous appeal, the fragile air of death still whistling across its bleached and stone-peppered hills.

The Night of Counting the Years, a smart, peculiar, and unforgettable Egyptian feature, is set among gorgeously sullen ruins whose sublimating lintels and broken colossuses emerge from faces of sheer and barren rock. However its attention is not on these silent structures but on the mountains themselves, whose labyrinthine innards conceal the personal remnants of a long-gone civilization.

The story begins with a leak of manuscripts and artifacts from a 21st Dynasty tomb near Thebes that has yet to be found by the authorities. They send a young archaeologist downriver on a steamboat to a mountainous region peopled by a tribe called the Hurubat. The apparent thefts that are occurring are the work of a secret brotherhood of grave robbers, a collective within the tribe whose leader has just passed away. The other robbers waste no time in bringing his two surviving sons into the fold. Their initiation begins with a nighttime excavation of a cave set deep into a mountain rich with the coffins of pharaohs. “Here, you’re nothing but grains of sand in the mountain’s belly,” the lead robber tells them, inviting both humbleness and mentioning the impossibility of detection. Hungry eyes widen in the lantern light. They cut bandages of the ancient and hack its jewelry off.

Later, and in the presence of their mother, the two young men voice their trepidation to their cohorts. The elder son cannot define his moral revulsion but stands by it. The main robber excoriates him as infantile, insisting the young man has changed since accompanying them, and that there is no turning back. He implies that they, the nomadic tribesmen, have a greater claim to the tombs than any of their countrymen – not the sedentary people of the valley or the wealthy urbanites who ultimately buy the hot trinkets. He expresses a pre-national conception of history but would be hard-pressed to trace their lineage to the dynasties who ruled the land ages ago, and nonetheless cynically sells his findings to the wider world. The elder son is repudiated by the gang and, later, murdered in broad daylight.

The younger son, Wanis, fearfully, and then seriously, steps up to become leader. He advocates sharing the treasure, but a younger minority faction within the tribe, led by Murad the merchant, wants to keep for themselves what they find, and for their own personal wealth. Their moral laxity frays his gravitas and taxes his already grudging approval. Things become tense when the archaeologist and his entourage arrive by the river. They know the vicinity of the cave but not the location. Meanwhile a young and enigmatic stranger from outside the valley is attacked by the tribesmen, most likely for no other reason than that his presence there coincides with those of the infiltrating city people. Wanis, proving his flatly determined uncorruptability, gets surrounded by a sort of intimidation purge, a communal terror.

The city people, the egyptologists, are after answers about the ancients. Their seeking depends on these answers, and they are of a breed forever trying to awaken the past for reevaluation, to divine a stable and definitive message locked in the fixative of historical aura. Their interest is beyond academic, as they represent the gradual formation of nationhood in the minds of Egyptians, and to them these ancient and distantly-connected peoples hold an invaluable piece of that unstable picture. The tribesmen, also nomadic but in the midst of a five-century stopover, seem plagued by the past, blighted by its tall shadows and its sandstone thrall. Their recompense is the money that is unsentimentally harvested from the caves. Neither group seems to feel that they are upsetting sacred soil, and the only talk of a curse is that of the mother on her two errant sons.

Still from 'The Night of Counting the Years'Wanis’ uncle, the merchant Ayyub, returns from distant sales, bringing back with him the waft of largesse of a darker sort than seen before. Next to him Murad and his ilk look benign, and they (either helpfully or sneakily) try to warn the young man that his uncle’s intentions may fall short of moral. Wanis becomes rightfully concerned that Ayyub will either kill him to usurp his privileges or sell out to the archaeologists, or do both in that order. So he decides to preemptively do the latter himself, thereby putting a stop to the community’s secret source of income in the interest of ending the backbiting. So he takes them there to the secret place in the mountain. The young archaeologist fluently reads the hieroglyphs: the place is, in fact, a repository where priests brought the bodies of various pharaohs at a time when the Valley of the Kings was being looted with regularity. This was three thousand years ago – the priests venerated the pharaohs, and thus thought it necessary to preserve the dead but not the treasure. Any booty extracted now is jewelry on the bodies, which were placed in the simple sarcophagi of ordinary humans.

The city people stage a raid to end raids, risking retribution by the tribesmen who outnumber and outgun them, the sarcophagi having no in situ value as they would in their original tombs. The removal of the shrouded mummies calls to mind a reverse funeral march – a resurrection march – their exhuming taking on a ritual care all its own. The dead had a ritual significance to the priests, just as raiding (done piecemeal) does to the Hurubat, and indeed, to the authorities (done wholesale), who approach their task with religious wonderment. The black-clad sand dogs scatter. The artifacts have been thumbed by generations of so-called thieves – but what they want belongs to no one. It is refuse, essentially, that has been memorialized and then preserved by the desert environment.

The people move meditatively among headless monuments, detached, disoriented by tones resonating through the ages that emanate steadily while physical history becomes a broom-swept and fragmented profusion. One character points out that the closed hand of a statue cannot have its fortune read – a fortune that would invariably be the imminent but unsure oblivion that grandeur attempts to complicate and conceal. Director Salam resists a conception of history that views it as a permeable, almost supine realm that can always, through some determination, be bridged to provide conclusions, or even neat answers. At the same time, though, the film puts itself forth as a social document and a definite historical narrative that is nonetheless grandly cinematic. It feels like speculative fiction but is based on true events – the director treats it as research or excavation of collective consciousness.

On one hand dramatically stentorian, its script seething with poetry, the film is, on the other hand, muted, saturnine, and enamored of data. It remains consistently unexpected, its stark and angered demands registering mostly on people’s faces while the cool staging holds on as austere as an uncarved pillar. Figures, filmed like weighted busts, fix one another with severe stares while intoning their exchanges, like in a Julius Caeser staging. It is theatrical but the chasm-like space is sensed intently, even when not seen, spelled out mostly in the human landscape. Its statue-gallery of characters, propped in wide and empty expanses (both without and within) are what anchor the eye-gluing somnolence slowly played out onscreen. One could easily expect the stately mesmerism of Fellini Satyricon (1969), a film where the characters don’t make any sense as humans, having the shallowness of scope of painted cameos. From the outset this proves itself an altogether different type of film; it neither evokes nor abstracts history but folds it into the encompassing, terrified pressure of a contemporary identity crisis. Keeping facts intact but not diminishing its own theatricality in doing so, it encodes history through careful exaggeration, like the enlargement of narrow details into enormous headlines.

The sound beneath the score is a continuous, opaque roar like singing dunes. It does not rumble or roil and, given the sound-deadening vastness of the desert, which is a presence in itself, provides a contrastingly claustrophobic environment. It neither rises nor bottoms out in order to summon atmospheres of tension, but maintains a steady rush like the bellowing ambiance of the tomb, at times evolving into a rhythmic, breathing sift. All the while the orchestral score (its restless foil) swarms with coppery atonality like a rippling school of fish in an undersea void. People’s words descend into strange, foul and dull reverberations in the center of the valley while varying degrees of echo create a distinct sense of artificial distance between them. The auditory surroundings of the film make a bid for the ominous and hallucinatory but, first and foremost, sustain a pallid, coffinlike resonance, as though heard from the other end of a funnel or through the ancient sounding-box of a mountain’s hollow core.

The powerful but barely-sensed noise of the first half mutes in the latter to almost nothing, verging on the variously spectral and aleatory, the previously incessant wind puncturing and giving way to a heavy wasteland silence. Suddenly there is range, auditory space in addition to the visual. Both the initial scenes and the end are marked by courtly music that is long and cavernous like the sound of a slowed-down record, with an equally alien feeling, and which is indescribably frightening and sensuous. Meanwhile that background tone has become the cold vibration coming off a lathe, the feeling of the river’s waters cutting through banks of silt. Wanis retreats through the blue pre-dawn.

Wanis’ mother evicts him and his brother from her home for participating in the theft of the gold kartouche at the beginning and then disappears from the narrative early on. She apparently shares in their shock at what her husband engaged in to gain wealth, as well as at the continued shady dealings of his brothers (grave robber and middleman, respectively). The knowledge that grave-robbing had contributed to their survival over the years produces in them ambivalence, to put it lightly. There is a sense of an innocence being extinguished, as they come from a community in which they had been taught to venerate pharaohs while not suspecting any proximity or literal connection to them. As the city people move the bodies out of the cave it seems as though they too will come to a similar sort of revelation. Perhaps they have been defined by an idea of nationhood that is false, contrived or colonial in character. These treasures are just objects with a dead weight to them, the mummies like dry reed husks. What the seekers are extracting and beholding are fragments that complete a consciousness, that can act as an echolocator in the dark catacombs of all that is yet to come.

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