Screened at the 41st Annual Reeling Chicago International LGBTQ+ Film Festival (3/5); Letterboxd (3/5), Imdb.com (6/10), TMDB.com (3/5)
When is something sinful, and when is it not? It’s hardly a clear-cut matter; what someone might see as perfectly acceptable is utter heresy for someone else, despite the fact that the same issue is up for debate in each of those cases. And it’s this question that’s explored in writer-director Marwan Mokbel Elessawi’s second feature outing about an Egyptian-American gay couple who visit the homeland to handle a family emergency and end up undergoing a frightening, unexpected supernatural experience. One of the partners, Mo (short for Mohammed) (Junes Zahdi), who has spent most of his life in the US and has had little contact with his family for years, is unaccustomed to the lack of tolerance he experiences compared to his life in America. Yet, despite sincere efforts to maintain a low profile, he soon discovers that there may be those who know about his “sinful” secret – and who seek to inflict evil deeds upon him for his allegedly wicked ways, experiences that prompt Mo to question his own behavior. But aren’t those gestures perpetrated against him innately as evil as what he’s supposedly guilty of? While these acts are served up in the guise of witchcraft, the narrative draws upon them as metaphors for the narrow-mindedness of fanatical religious fundamentalism. These incidents thus place the beleaguered protagonist in a position of having to assess his beliefs about himself and what’s unfolding around him, issues that hearken back to his youthful upbringing and prompting him to examine his current behavior. The result is an admirably ambitious effort at exploring the key question raised above. Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t address it as clearly as it might have. While this offering starts out strong and finishes well, it stumbles in the middle, getting caught up in an array of confusing story threads that go on too long and ultimately yield more muddle than riddle. Although the film provides a detailed look at the rites and practices of Egyptian witchcraft, there’s a definite TMI quality about this that doesn’t allow the narrative’s symbolic elements to come across as unobstructed as they might have otherwise. I appreciate the sentiment that this one was going for, but it’s regrettable that it didn’t carry it off as well as it might have. It really is true that less can be more.