In True Colors: A careless canvas

Director Osama Fawzy’s latest offering, “Bel alwan el tabi’iya” (In True Colors), about a young art student warring with the narrow-minded trappings of his religiosity in order to find and honor his artistic integrity, is shockingly mediocre, thanks mostly to Hani Fawzy’s lamentably poor script.

In the first act, our cliché of a protagonist, Youssef (Kareem Qassem), is conflicted about getting accepted into the fine arts institute because he’s eager to satisfy his mother’s wish that he become a doctor, lawyer, or work in some other “respectable” profession. This conflict is presented through tedious soul-searching monologues addressed directly to God, where the character self-consciously exposes his inner thoughts. The mother responds by cursing her fate with incessant wailing for the first 20 minutes of the film, and then we never see her again.

The film is structured around Youssef’s five years at the institute, whose portrayal bears no resemblance to any recognizable reality. We meet cliques of pupils you’d expect to see in a parody of such an institute, including hip budding artists with the funky hair and accessories to match and, in a preposterous attempt to balance the picture, disapproving and bearded Muslim Brotherhood members straight out of some Danish cartoon. And if the students are unconvincing clichés, the depiction of the professors is downright farcical –  a bickering and ageing odd couple paint fight, one strips down in a staff meeting to prove his point, and another compulsively laughs at everything.

It is against this backdrop that Youssef has to decide whether painting the nude form is morally acceptable. On his journey of self discovery he sleeps with a classmate, who ends up donning the niqab to atone for her carnal act, as well as a cougar associate professor that the film eventually didactically shames for exploiting his talent and availing herself of his manhood.

The storylines don’t progress naturally, hopping between the signposts of a script that never developed past the blueprint stage. These signposts are strung together with seemingly endless montage sequences of the students at work, where bearing witness to how cool they look scribbling away is meant to be enough to keep us engaged. To expect any satisfying resolution to the storylines, as you may have gathered by now, is laughably optimistic.

When we’re treated to an actual scene, the dialogue is expository and awkward, as characters spell out their every desire and intention. Mahmoud El Lozy, playing Youssef’s mentor and the only sane professor in sight, is one of the few who manages to circumnavigate this quagmire of bad lines; his function in the film is to dispense forced advice to help emancipate the tenderfoot’s creative soul, but he makes it ring true nonetheless.

Most frustrating are the occasional reminders of what the film could, or rather should, have been. We catch glimpses of the giddying possibility that lies ahead of students in higher learning conservatories, where the world seems to be their oyster, before these moments quickly evaporate like mirages. Technically, cinematographer Tarek el Telmesany’s high contrast composition is vivid eye candy, and some sequences – such as the one in which we find Youssef inexplicably standing beside a lake sharing his angst with the heavens for maybe the sixth time – start out mesmerizing until the film’s poor content breaks the spell. And in a Mardi Gras-like costume party celebrating the end of the students’ first year, the art direction is momentarily dazzling.

The film also teems with an abundance of young acting talent portraying the students. Most notably are Ramsi Lehner’s womanizing sell-out, delivered with an understated charisma, and Ibrahim Salah’s antediluvian hack, who’s obsequious ascendancy of the school’s power ranks is the film’s most interesting aspect.

The film has already generated some of the controversy its makers clearly hoped it would; an abundance of bare skin, full-on kisses that stand in for sex, and a Christian director tackling the story of a young Muslim man struggling with his faith are all designs gagging for a heated response. One sequence starts with a student dancing in class to a house track, before he’s joined by a girl shaking her hips to a sha’abi tune and they’re interjected by one of the aforementioned misplaced Brotherhood students chanting the call to prayer. The three tracks harmonize before an incense-wielding Christian flagellator joins the discord. The overall effect is meant to be at once entertaining and provocative; the actual result is ludicrous and more than mildly disturbing.

The only controversy surrounding this film actually worth discussing is how a director of such repute – especially if you happen to be familiar with his previous work and therefore what was once his caliber as a filmmaker – can undershoot so dreadfully, leaving a once loyal audience wholly unsatisfied. 

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