Somewhere between a documentary and a comedic fable, Namir Abdel Messeeh's first feature film is a welcome diversion from the current climate of strife and sectarian violence in the Middle East. A French-Egyptian co-production, The Virgin, the Copts and Me follows Namir's touching yet challenging journey back to his roots. A young Frenchman like any other, his identity is strongly influenced by his mother's departure from her homeland, Egypt, in 1973, shortly after the resignation of former President Abdel Nasser.
Yet the impetus for the film—or documentary—is to cover the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Zeitoun, a suburb of Cairo, in 1968. Sometimes called Our Lady of Zeitoun, the apparition manifested itself by a burst of lighting, with the barely recognizable figure of Mary in the background. No consensus on the veracity of the event can be reached by the Egyptian population. Were Christian believers the only ones able to see it? Could it have been orchestrated by the new government of Anwar Sadat to give hope to the Coptic minority and distract the citizenry at large from the lost Six-Day War with Israel of June 1967?
Namir's family belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, an ancient community of Christians established by St. Mark in the first century. The film suggests Copts may be the real Egyptians, and touches upon colloquial similarities between Mary and Osiris, the Pharaonic idol. Inhabitants of the mother's desolate hometown of Om Doma explain that times are hard for Christians under the Muslim rule. Jews are equally repressed and routinely sidelined.
The film starts with a scene of Namir having dinner with his family in France, followed by their viewing of an old tape of the apparition. His mother, who sees pious signs in paintings of the Virgin Mary and other religious artifacts, remembers it vividly from her youth in Egypt. In spite of his initial cynicism, Namir decides to embark upon his new cinematic project—a documentary about this apparition. The project serves as a subtle way for him to draw closer to his mother by setting his attention on the mother of all believers. Idiosyncratically, she speaks to him in Arabic while he replies in French, a pattern that carries on throughout the film. For Namir's mother, the Arabic language acts as a lifeline to her native culture. So does her Coptic faith.
If poverty is ubiquitous in the footage of Egyptian life, especially as the camera takes us from Cairo to the town of Om Doma, the Coptic population is held together by a shared sense of self-abnegation and unwavering faith. To help Namir finish his documentary, the Copts stage a new scene of heavenly apparition, making sure to portray it as a piece of fiction to avoid blasphemy. An audition is held to find the right young woman who can play the role of the Virgin Mary. While shooting the scene, the men of the town hold her up in the air in front of a green screen by pulling on makeshift ropes. Villagers stand outside and marvel at a miracle made for the camera. The film by Namir, and their common efforts to make it happen, also act as a miracle of sorts.
The making of the film takes the villagers away from the daily drudge of their hard and unrewarding labor. As one peasant confesses to Namir, they are condemned to work in the fields every day, barely able to scrape together a living. For them, acting in this documentary is at once a welcome and a necessary distraction from pain and distress. Humor is another tool of emancipation from the oppression of their daily lives. Namir's mother is especially funny in her brash yet benevolent vituperations against her son's bouts of irresponsibility. Namir's youthful insecurity is equally amusing.
Yet it is faith that remains a rallying force for the Copts on the screen. They are not called to focus on their victimized status as a religious minority, but on the guiding light of God. Prayers, fellowship and the joy of honoring their Christian tradition are clearly evident on film. The grandmother, wearing a blue cap, white garments and an irridescent glow, is reminiscent at times of Mary herself. So is the mother's love and affection for her son. The laughter of the men is equally moving, and a reminder that not much is needed to accept the joy of God in our lives. Namir acts as the time-tested figure of the prodigal son, moving from secular skepticism in his parents' dining-room to burgeoning faith in the Coptic faith. Seen through his artistic vision, this fable makes for a moving cinematic experience.