The Night of Counting the Years/Al-Mummia

Shadi Abdel Salam

Salam made only one feature film, The Night of Counting the Years (Egypt, 1969). When he died in 1986 at the age of 56, his career included documentaries and only one other fiction work, the 20-minute short The Eloquent Peasant, from one of Ancient Egypt’s most famous works of literature.

Shadi Abdel Salam
Shadi Abdel Salam

The Film

Five years ago, in a Dubai Film Festival publication 475 critics, writers, novelists and academics chose The Night of Counting the Years as the greatest Arab film ever made.

Released in 1969, it’s been a hard film to see. After festival screenings, it all but disappeared with only poor 16mm prints in circulation.

Salam’s film is based on real events. During Ancient Egypt’s 21st Dynasty, priests in Thebes tried to stop tomb robbers by moving more than 50 Royal mummies from the Valley of the Kings and burying them in a single tomb at Deir el-Bahri. Nearly 3,000 years later, in 1881, treasures from this tomb began appearing on the world’s antiquities market. Local Horabat villagers had discovered the tomb and were systematically pillaging its archaeological booty.

The film opens with the renowned archaeologist Gaston Maspero (Gaby Karraz) reading from a papyrus of The Book of the Dead before sending young archaeologist Wannis (Ahmed Marei) on a mission to find the plundered Deir el-Bahri cache and escort the Royal mummies down the Nile to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. At Deir el-Bahri, Kamal enters a shadowy world where bloodlines and economic survival greatly outweigh any moral duty to preserve the priceless national treasures.

Martin Scorsese, who established the World Cinema Foundation, has said of The Night of Counting the Years: “[It] has an extremely unusual tone – stately, poetic, with a powerful grasp of time and the sadness it carries. The carefully measured pace, the almost ceremonial movement of the camera, the desolate settings, the classical Arabic spoken on the soundtrack, the unsettling score by the great Italian composer Mario Nascimbene – they all work in perfect harmony and contribute to the feeling of fateful inevitability.”

Visually ravishing, yet austere and poetic, The Night of Counting the Years shows influences from the later work of one of Salam’s mentors, Roberto Rossellini. Working on décor and costumes for Rossellini’s Italian documentary TV series Mankind’s Fight For Survival, Salam so impressed the Italian director that Rossellini helped the Egyptian finance The Night of Counting the Years and promoted the film on completion at its Venice Film Festival premiere.

Salam spent the final 10 years of his life trying to mount another feature – the life of Egypt’s most fascinating Pharaoh, a man who was labeled a heretic and a criminal by many of his peers and much later, by some Egyptologists, as a visionary, the world’s first monotheist and the world’s first revolutionary.

On the basis of his only feature film The Night of Counting the Years, now recognized as the greatest film ever from the Arab world, Salam’s long cherished second feature Akhenaton, The Tragedy of the Great House is surely one of cinema’s monumental missed opportunities.

 Notes on the Restoration

In 2009, The World Cinema Foundation and Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato finally accessed the original materials and restored the film. For reasons that remain obscure, no Blu-ray or DVD copies have been made from this restoration. Original 35mm camera and sound negatives preserved at the Egyptian Film Centre in Cairo were used to produce a new 35mm inter-negative for digital restoration.

 Director/Writer: Shadi Abdel Salam, Produced by General Egyptian Cinema Organisation, Merchant Ivory Productions, Prod: Roberto Rossellini, Ph: Abdel Aziz Fahmy, Prod Des: Salah Marei, Ed: Kamal Abou-El-Ella, Music: Mario Nascimbene.

Ahmed Marei (Wannis), Ahmad Hegazi (brother), Zouzou Hamdy El-Hakim (mother), Nadia Lutfi (Zeena)

Egypt, 1969, 102 minutes, Classical Arabic, English subtitles.

Notes by Rod Bishop