'Back to Alexandria': A poignant film despite character flaws

There is a realistic and convincing portrayal of Egypt from a cosmopolitan cast in this 2023 release, but the struggle of the characters to make emotional progress stands out.

A still grab from the film 'Back to Alexandria'.
TipImages Productions
A still grab from the film 'Back to Alexandria'.

'Back to Alexandria': A poignant film despite character flaws

There are few constants in Back to Alexandria, but as the title suggests, this is a film about a journey—both physical and emotional. For its main character, Sue (played by Nadine Labaki), the only thing she can be sure of is the physical journey from Switzerland to Cairo by plane and then from Cairo to Alexandria in a pink car reminiscent of Barbie’s famous vehicle.

After a 20-year estrangement, Sue visits her dying mother in Egypt. Through layered memories, the audience learns of her relationship with her mother through Alexandria's transformed surroundings.

Journey through trauma

Back to Alexandria is a French-Egyptian-Swiss-Qatari co-production written and directed by the Swiss-Egyptian filmmaker Tamer Rogli and co-written by Marianne Brann and Yousry Nasrallah. It focuses on emotional and spatial memory—particularly the psychological memory linked to Sue’s damaged relationship with her mother, stemming from childhood trauma and abandonment, which left her with permanent scars.

Her visit is prompted by a call from her aunt Engy (played by Mennat Al-Batrawy), but reality is blurred by hallucinations and dreams as her wishes and frustrations become part of the story.

Early in the film, Sue, who is in her 40s, is visited by the mischievous child Bobby (Elia Monti), whose identity is unclear, and the ghost of her mother Fayrouz (played by the renowned French actress Fanny Ardant). They continuously pop into her conscience, blurring the line between nightmares and reality.

A stranger to Cairo

The early appearance of the two spectres in the protagonist’s life—and her confusion towards them, despite her being a renowned psychotherapist based in Switzerland—makes the film somewhat predictable. As a result, the viewer is less engaged by the ending. However, the film does take the viewer on a pleasant and light-hearted journey.

When Sue decides to return to see her mother on her deathbed, it opens the door to the past. She begins to face the daily challenges of Cairo. With its busy traffic and fast pace, she soon feels lost, a stranger in a place she was once familiar with. Here, the film shows Sue's pursuit of enjoyment despite the challenging world she finds herself in.

Back to Alexandria focuses on emotional and spatial memory through Sue's damaged relationship with her mother.

Capturing reality

Back to Alexandria could easily have become detached from Egyptian reality, especially since Rogli—its primary creator—does not live in Cairo and speaks only broken Arabic, but instead he connects deeply with Egypt and captures the country's spirit.

In this, he is helped by his fellow director, Yousry Nasrallah, and producer-director Marianne Khoury, both Egyptian natives. This lets the audience fully engage with the film's setting, which is an unusual achievement. In this way, Egypt's portrayal is much closer to reality than that seen in other films, including Boy from Heaven by Tarik Saleh, which was mainly set in Al-Azhar University.

The film also features throwbacks to famous Egyptian films, such as those by legendary Alexandria-born director Youssef Chahine, including his cinematic biography of the city. For example, Bobby, the mischievous boy, reminds us of a similar character in Chahine's 1982 film An Egyptian Story. Here, the character represents Chahine's inner child, just as Bobby somewhat represents Sue's inner child.

After the film's premiere at Zawya Cinema in Cairo, Rogli said Back to Alexandria was somewhat autobiographical because his mother had a broken relationship with her own mother for many years, which led to her estrangement from Cairo. This partially explains why Sue's inner child is a boy, not a girl. Bobby perhaps represents Rogli himself in his mother's journey through her childhood crises.

Mother-daughter relations

Although Labaki, who plays Sue, is Lebanese—not Egyptian—she is nevertheless popular with the country's audience. She performs with spontaneity and precision, portraying a beautiful foreign woman, Egyptian by birth, who lost her identity due to trauma and fled 20 years earlier to start a new life away from her homeland.

TipImages Productions
A still grab from the film 'Back to Alexandria'.

Labaki's film has a cosmopolitan feel that reflects the city's embrace of so many nationalities and cultures. The same is true of French star Fanny Ardant, whose nationality seems irrelevant to her portrayal of Sue's mother, Fayrouz. Her character, who is of blue blood, has an approach entirely at odds with traditional Egyptian motherhood. She speaks almost exclusively French, and despite Sue being her only daughter, she never reached out to her over the years.

Fayrouz's past includes a grand and almost scandalous love story with a French sailor whom she wanted to marry, only to be disappointed by a cruelly different fate. She then seeks to wreck Sue's own love story with Idris—the son of a servant— on the grounds of class.

The family, living between the aristocratic Zamalek area of Cairo and the large villas in Alexandria, sees itself as superior, but its members are painfully unable to communicate with one another, reminiscent of Chahine's family as depicted by Marianne Khoury in her documentary, Tell Me. 

It helps us understand Chahine's sister's early marriage to an older man to save her family from bankruptcy, as she suffered silently from her inability to love him. This coldness infected her relationship with her daughter, Marianne, which in turn infected Marianne's relationship with her own daughter, Sarah.

The film's stand-out moments are when it is at its most intimate, such as when Sue wanders lost in modern Zamalek.

Best in intimacy

Among the more memorable of Rogli's scenes is a confrontation between Sue and her mother's ghost in the desert. "I forgive you, but I no longer love you," Sue says. Despite this, she still begs her mother not to leave—a decision the mother makes metaphorically, putting an end to their turbulent battle.

The film's stand-out moments are when it is at its most intimate, such as when Sue wanders lost in modern Zamalek, or the depiction of Aunt Engy's house, with her way of speaking, humour, and even class prejudice against her kind servant, Reda.

Back to Alexandria seems to end somewhat prematurely with the word "wahashtini," (I miss you) spoken by a mother to her daughter, or a daughter to her mother, in ways other than words. It is a film that neither seeks nor provides a conclusion but finds satisfaction in the journey's ability to reconcile the viewer with their own sorrows. 

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