I had heard wonderful things about A Present from the Past. So much so that I hesitated in going to see it, fearing disappointment.
The premise is universally relatable, even if the tale carries a touch of the extraordinary in the way it unfolds. A daughter buys her father, and herself, plane tickets to Italy from Egypt to celebrate his 75th birthday. Having studied there in his youth, he returned to Egypt leaving behind an Italian woman who he promised to go back and marry. He never did, and the love of his youth coalesced into a romanticised story about the one who got away. Now the daughter, walking in her father’s footsteps as a filmmaker, suggests a trip to revisit the scene of a story she has grown up hearing, and maybe find the woman he hasn’t seen for 33 years.
Filming almost entirely surreptitiously on an iPhone, Kawthar has captured the flickers of detail that make up intimate knowledge of another person. She shows her father in lovingly prosaic attitudes: lying in bed with his feet next to the camera, crooning old love songs, vulnerable in sleep. Her tenderness towards him is striking from the first frame and she revels in the quirks of his character without ever offering an opportunity for him to be mocked. Careful crafting shows a character who pretends to shoot koshary sellers from a passing car, chuckling triumphantly, who hoards mangoes like a mischievous child, who claims that his eagerness to see Patrizia is mostly so that he not “disrespect all Egyptians”, by giving the impression that Egyptian men break women’s hearts without explanation.
So much more interesting than the Mokhtar-Patrizia relationship, which you suspect remains well confined to the past, is the film’s dusting of emotion over the fragility of old age and the importance of memory. Mokhtar battles contradictory impulses as he contemplates the probability that this long dreamed-of meeting will actually take place. He wants Patrizia to remember him as the “prince” she once saw him as, resplendent in the abaya he has resurrected for the occasion. The prospect of a meeting is full of romance and significance. He will understand, he tells his daughter, if she has been with other men in the years since they met. After all, he never contacted her.
Delicately, with deliberation, he examines his memories. A letter in which she referred to him as the man of the house is recalled with pride, the recollection that she never wore earrings disclosed as you would something infinitely precious and cherished. He will invite her to come to Egypt, he muses in his hotel room; she may be tired of life in Italy.
Woven throughout the narrative is the yearning of a man who is preoccupied with aging to remain relevant, to have something tangible to offer the world. He has devoted his life to children’s education and speaks dismissively of people who try to communicate with youth in a didactic or patronising way. Periodically he rails against his daughter for taking control of the trip and their itinerary. A palpable fear of redundancy is evident in his calls home to his capable wife, asking her if she is scared to be in the house without him.
Equal in stubbornness, father and daughter fight. And then sleep, heads on one another’s shoulders.
The film is multi-layered and an understated, moving testament to love in its different forms. Kawthar, fearing that she has raised her father’s hopes for nothing, pleads with a bemused Italian hotel worker to help her find a trace of Patrizia online. Gone is her habitual tone of impish teasing, gone too the simmering frustration you hear at other junctures; tearfully she explains that she just wants to stop his sadness, and she suddenly sounds very young.
Mokhtar’s paternal pride is exhibited less directly. It is transmitted through the prism of an Egyptian-Italian they meet and befriend on arrival in Rome, who shrewdly observes the alchemic potency of the trip, the way that Kawthar’s presence gives her father back his youth. It is evident as they check into their hotel, with his loud declaration “father and daughter!”
If the film is a reminder to cherish those we live side by side with, it is one that is issued in the gentlest way. Unlike the countless evolving intimacies of daily life, memory is shown to be both enduring and malleable. We may never know why a story ends, but the ending we give ourselves may not be that of the person who lived the story with us. When it has been all this time, how could I not have loved you? How many people must have asked this question in the middle of a one-sided imaginary conversation with no end.
We may never know how our lovers remember us.
At the end of the film, like mirages stepping from the screen, father and daughter appeared to answer questions, so guilelessly like their film selves as to be almost disconcerting. Basking as the visible hero of a story now firmly embedded in the collective imagination of filmgoers within and beyond Egypt, Mokhtar looked younger than his film self.
Immortalised by his daughter, his legacy is enshrined in the love story of his youth. What a tremendous gift.