50 Countries Project #8: The Ring Seller (Lebanon)

Rima: “The engagement period is quite nice
But marriage is difficult
You will see how hard marriage is.”

Chorus: “We know and still want to get married.”

Rima: “Marriage means children and worries.”

Chorus: “We know and still want to get married.”

In its celebration of chaste sensuality and the human longing to be loved, Youssef Chahine’s 1965 musical The Ring Seller is a far cry from the dark, tormented sexuality of his earlier Cairo Station. It’s a film that situates itself in a brightly coloured, self-aware fantasy world, where falling in love is as simple as waiting to be paired up at the town’s annual engagement festival.

It’s fitting, then, that the equilibrium of the community itself depends on a fantasy. The mayor has successfully convinced his fellow townfolk that they live under the constant threat of mischief from a fictional troublemaker, Rajeh, who supposedly stalks the village’s outskirts. Only his niece, Rima (played by beloved Lebanese pop star Fairouz), knows the truth; so when livestock starts to go missing and discord breaks out, she is the only one to realise that the culprits must be closer at hand.

There’s gentle but poignant satire in the film’s premise: political authorities, after all, have used the fear of outsiders to entrench their own power since history began, and continue to do so today. The child of Egyptian Catholics, Chahine would have known all too well what it is like for one’s people to be treated as a scapegoat.

But do not be deceived: The Ring Seller is a film that stoically refuses to take itself seriously, from its slapstick water fight sequence (complete with cartoon sound effects!) to one of its subplots culminating in the film’s villains cheerfully locking themselves in prison. What pathos the film has is mostly saved for the film’s ending, where Rima – earlier, seen lamenting the weight of her unmarried status – is given a fairytale ending with a surprisingly bittersweet edge.

You can read more about my 50 countries project (and see the list of films and countries) here.

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