Huddled with his Coptic family around a fuzzy TV set, French filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh watches a tape of the Virgin Mary standing before hundreds of thousands of Coptic Christians in Egypt. In an instant, he decides to make a documentary about it.
Messeeh does not see the Virgin, though. His mother does. Messeeh is a nonbeliever. He decides to research this sighting, as well as a similar one in 1968, for a documentary screening now at TriBeCa.
Though the concept sounds esoteric, the movie itself is not. Messeeh uses post-modern tropes intelligently without allowing the film to get ahead of itself or be inaccessible. Perhaps more importantly, he explores extremely sensitive subject matter with humility, honesty, and humanism.
Over dinner one night, Messeeh starts explaining the idea behind the film to his family. From this point until the very end of the movie, his mother reminds him repeatedly of three things. First, he is under no circumstances to interview her family. Second, he doesn’t have a single goal and will probably fail—just like with his last movie. Third, no one will talk to him about something so charged.
Messeeh quickly manages to prove her (somewhat) right. He gets to Egypt, where religious tension immediately makes his work difficult. With tongue impossibly far in cheek, he explains that, though “all Egyptians are brothers,” the “Muslims don’t like the Christians, the Christians don’t like the Muslims, and, of course, everyone hates the Jews.”
Gung-ho directors with a point to prove might have lied to witnesses and hoodwinked their way to better evidence. Messeeh never does this. Instead, he records his process, showing the attitudes he encounters along the way. He tries to interview people on the streets. He respects people. Unable to collect evidence, he allows the film to turn into a soft-focus portrait of Cairo. He films a huge multiplicity of voices and faces, conveying such nuance that his jokes about religious tensions become absurdly reductive.
His producers are not happy about this. They hound him. He ends up driving out to his mother’s village, much to her chagrin, in order to follow a large pilgrimage in the area. It is at this point that the movie finds its emotional core.
Though determined, Messeeh has been an outsider until this point. He is not quite a match for his Egyptian family, but the distance between them closes and disappears. Even his mother manages to make peace with the family that once shamed her.
The most fascinating character is one of his cousins, a farmer who talks about the troubles of farming. The audience, seeing through Messeeh’s eyes, perceives a simple, bucolic life in a gorgeous landscape. Messeeh’s cousin sees a place without financial security, where a week’s illness means irreplaceable losses. Western society affords most an opportunity to escape—or at least ignore—difference, whether religious, ethnic, or socioeconomic. He makes it clear that the Western perception of “developing” countries isn’t much less offensive than Rousseau’s romanticized noble savage.
Whereas most documentaries that strip the sheen off poverty are meant to create pity, Messeeh wipes off the veneer so delicately that his family comes out more beautiful and lovable than before. Through humility and determination, he produces a deeply personal portrait that could make a cynic smile—even if his mom didn’t love it.