Confronting Toxic Memories

Film review by Professor Robert Abrams, Weill Cornell Medicine

‘Curfew’ (written and directed by Amir Ramses, Egypt, 2020).

Spoiler alert: this review reveals significant plot details.

Curfew is a stirring drama about parental sacrifice and the dynamics of reconciliation between a mother and daughter.  Along the way, the clinical picture of childhood sexual abuse, its circumstances and long-term consequences, is presented with exceptional clarity and understanding.

As the film opens, Faten (played by Elham Shaheen, who was awarded Best Actress at the Cairo International Film Festival in 2020 for this role) is a middle-aged woman who has just been released from prison after a serving a sentence of 20 years for killing her husband.  She is received by her daughter Layla (Amina Khalil) and her son-in-law Hassan (Ahmed Magdy), but Layla greets her mother with icy coldness.  Because of the exigencies in timing caused by the post-Revolutionary nighttime curfews prevalent in Egypt in 2013, the plan is for Faten is to stay with Layla and Hassan overnight before being taken the next day to the train station, where she will then go on to live with another relative. At home, Layla and Hassan have a young daughter, Donia (Jada Mohammed), about seven years old, nearly the same age that Layla had been when Faten killed her husband.

Layla assumes that her mother murdered her father in an act of jealous vindication after discovering that he had another lover; and she finds Faten’s act to be reprehensible, unjustified, and utterly unforgiveable.  But Faten’s reticence about revealing her real motive leads the viewer to suspect that it had been her husband’s sexual abuse of the young Layla that drove her to such a desperate act.  Without offering any explanation for her action, Faten begs her daughter to show some sign of compassion or forgiveness.  At the same time, Faten quickly forges a mutually loving relationship with her granddaughter, Donia.

The balance of the film is largely given over to a remarkable portrait of the psychological injuries resulting from sexual abuse of a child by a parent; Layla, the victim, is seen to suffer from a full panoply of such sequelae.  Her amnesia for the actual abuse perpetrated by her father comes at the cost of her present happiness.  She is inattentive, joyless, and quick to anger. Subject to night terrors that disrupt her sleep, she suffers from unremitting fatigue.   She struggles to be affectionate with her daughter and avoids both physical and emotional intimacy with her husband.  Keenly aware of her shortcomings as mother and wife but lacking conscious knowledge of the origin of her conflicts, Layla compounds her misery with self-blame.

The restrictive conditions of the dusk-to-dawn curfew in Cairo—no one can go out at night for fear of arrest at one of the many police check points around the city—lend an urgency to the rapidly evolving relationship between Faten and Layla.  Faten’s closely guarded secret feels metaphorically in character with the tensely enforced silence in the surrounding city; and yet, in an ironic twist, it is the universal despair in Egypt in 2013, two years after the bitter dénouement of the Arab Spring, that fosters the conditions in which Layla’s long-delayed reconciliation with her mother can take place.  Neither Faten nor Layla can easily leave the house and have no choice but to resolve the traumatic event that has shaped both of their lives.

Helped by Hassan, a mature, empathic husband, Layla gradually begins to see her mother as the person of unusual courage and sensitivity that she genuinely is. Layla now grasps that there may have been a motivation other than jealous rage that led Faten to murder her father. There is also, as there always seems to be in such cases, a third person who experiences collateral damage. In this instance, it is Yahia (Kamel El Basha) the neighbor who has supported and defended Faten unfailingly throughout her ordeal.

Curfew reveals the balance required to manage the emotional wounds that childhood sexual abuse by a parent can inflict.  As for all events that are so traumatic or damaging that they are lost to conscious awareness but remembered symptomatically, the conditions for healing remain those famously elucidated by C.G. Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”  How much Layla has been able to reconstruct from her repressed memories is never made explicit, but in a brief eventful span of time she has appreciated enough to be able to view her mother in a different light. Layla finally acknowledges that Faten had risked the loss of her love in a well-intended but misguided attempt to shield her from the painful truth of child abuse. An old aunt in the film, (Arefa Abdul Rasoul), joking about her supposed cognitive deficits, offers her own deft solution to bridge toxic memories with the fundamental need to forgive: “I let go of many things, but I don’t forget.”

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