It’s the most costly film ever made in Arabic. It has the audacity to say in public what most people only dare say in private. It looks frankly at corruption, exploitation, lack of opportunity and the attraction of Islamism. It breaks the taboo on sh owing homosexuality. It breaks box-office records and kicks off unprecedented debate. If you’re interested in the wider world, surely this is one to see! This is one big film – not because it’s nearly three hours long, even in the version cut for release with English subtitles, but because of its ambition. In the Cairo apartment block of the title, and the people and families who live there, we see modern Egypt. Zaki Bey, played brilliantly by veteran Adel Imam, son of a Pasha, regretfully lives out his days in bars and chasing women. Haj Azzam, a rich entrepreneur and one-time shoeshine boy, now chases a Japanese car concession.
Up on the roof are dozens of families living in what were tiny storage huts. Taha, the doorkeeper’s son, is a clever and hard-working student whose lowly social origins prevent him getting into the Police Academy. Busayna, his girlfriend, whose earnings support her family, is sexually exploited by her employers. Hatim, the editor of a French-language newspaper, doesn’t hide that he’s gay and, like Zaki Bey, buys sex, even relationships, and installs his soldier lover and family on the roof.
It’s a grim picture of a mercenary and humiliating public life, with private consolations for some. The script does indulge in soap-like confrontations and melodrama, but the characterization, direction and, not least, social context, are spot-on. The Yacoubian Building presents a self-interested, moribund élite that should be very worried about its future.