MALMO: Set in the squalor of Cairo’s sweltering, stinking tanneries district, “Poisonous Roses” tells the story of a sister so devoted to her brother that she would sabotage his future happiness to keep him near.
A fictional follow-up to his acclaimed 2011 documentary “Living Skin,” Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s debut feature is a bold creation that eschews conventional Egyptian cinema tropes to champion the heroic fortitude of the country’s underclass.
Yet these laudable motives are undermined by ponderous plotting and unconvincing characterization that leaves the film hollow and with questions unanswered.
Saqr (Ibrahim El-Nagary) is a 22-year-old manual worker in the tanneries, while his older sister, the devout Taheya (Marihan Magdy), is a toilet cleaner. Both toil in their unloved jobs, with the tanneries’ monstrous, antiquated machinery and the polluted streams of wastewater it creates a constant neighborhood menace.
Every day, Taheya travels by minibus to deliver Saqr’s lunch to his place of work, an act of kindness her brother seems ungrateful for and the viewer is left wondering why she wouldn’t just give him the food when he leaves their ramshackle apartment each morning.
Although devoted to her brother, Taheya shows him no real warmth, nor vice-versa, in a relationship that’s curiously lacking intimacy. Neither smiles in the other’s presence.
Saqr reveals to his sister that he has met a girl (whom we never see) while Taheya is aghast to discover he’s plotting to leave Egypt for Italy aboard a smuggler’s boat. Desperate, she enlists a magician (Mahmood Hemaidah) to perform a complicated ritual that will thwart both Saqr’s fledgling romance and his departure.
Taheya’s obsessive attachment to her brother is puzzling, although the film is loosely based on Ahmed Zaghloul Al-Sheety’s 1990 novel “Poisonous Roses for Saqr,” which itself draws inspiration from the Ancient Egyptian myth of Isis, who marries her brother.
Yet at Malmo’s Arab Film Festival, writer-director Saleh told the audience that Taheya’s love was platonic and her actions were to protect the only man in her life.
The siblings’ mother is an occasional, near-silent presence while their father is unmentioned and unseen, with the two siblings the only characters of any depth. Although worthy, the film fails to make the audience care about their respective fates.