Any film that runs more than two and a half hours is a commitment. So the first thing you want to know about "The Yacoubian Building" is: Is it worth the investment?
Yes, though a little editing wouldn't have hurt.
Epic in every sense of the word, this drama directed by first-time feature filmmaker Marwan Hamed springs from a bestselling novel by Alaa Al Aswany, adapted by veteran screenwriter Wahid Hamed (the director's father). Its title refers to an apartment building in Cairo, named for the man who erected it, in 1937 when he was leader of that city's Armenian community.
The building stands firm through decades of tumultuous history, giving shelter to a collection of intersecting stories and lives. Needless to say, it's a big and richly detailed collection; that's one reason it takes so long to unveil.
Tenants of the Yacoubian Building mirror the full length of Egyptian society as it has passed from the era of privileged pashas to a scrappier social order. Through its first-class citizens and working-class roof-dwellers we view wealth and poverty, character and corruption, vice, chauvinism, terrorism, homosexuality, politics, prostitution . . . for the most part, it's not a pretty picture. And let's just say the view is not improved by Sameh Selim's lackluster cinematography.
But bleak and flawed as it is, "The Yacoubian Building" (a.k.a. "Omaret yakobean") still succeeds as an uncommonly bold meditation on many controversial, clandestine aspects of modern Egyptian life. One storyline involves a gay journalist (Khaled El Sawy) who seduces a married soldier (Bassem Samra). For both filmmakers and actors (the cast features some of the biggest stars in Egypt), bringing that scenario to Middle Eastern screens involved considerable bravery, even if the net result might seem a little clumsy and melodramatic to Western audiences.
Another tragic young character, the doorman's disaffected son (Mohamed Imam), is portrayed sympathetically even after he joins up with Islamic extremists. Meanwhile the boy's ex-girlfriend (Hind Sabry) succumbs to a culture of sexual favors that eventually leads her to fall for an elderly playboy (Adel Imam).
As if that's not enough, there's also a thread involving a hypocritical polygamist (Nour El Sherif) who'll stop at nothing - including enslavement and forced abortion - to get what he wants.
Fans of the book will pass their own judgment on trims and changes (the movie shattered box-office records in its native land). For those coming into the film cold, opportunities for tightening seem obvious, and Hamed's learning curve as a director shows in every inefficiently constructed scene.
A surer hand could have shaped this epic into a far more powerful cinematic experience. The clay is there. But even as it stands, "The Yacoubian Building" is rich and imposing.