Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Youssef Chahine: From Egypt With Love and Anger

Artist: Nayer Talal Nayer

By Richard Corliss

Where does the truth hide? 
Truth is my death; truth is my life. 
Before the apocalypse comes, I search in vain for a way to protect you, 
My Egypt, my homeland.
This song for a land in distress, with lyrics by the poet Abdel Rahim Mansour, comes from the 1982 film An Egyptian Story. It might have been the personal anthem of the movie's writer-director, Youssef Chahine, who died Sunday at 82, six weeks after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. His passing ended a busy, exemplary career that spanned nearly six decades making movies, myths and trouble.

Chahine is not well-known in the United States, even to lovers of foreign films. Few of his 40-plus features achieved any kind of release here, and you'll go nuts trying to find his stuff on DVD. But at film festivals, he was for decades the prime, often the only, representative of an entire continent, Africa, and a world religion, Islam — this though his family was Christian and his ancestors came from Greece and Lebanon. He was born in Alexandria and grew up during a chaotic time for the planet and for Egypt: World War II, when Rommel's Army marched toward his hometown, and the postwar invention of the state of Israel, which the Arab world viewed as a catastrophe. With various shades of commitment and ambivalence, Chahine would dramatize the Arab-Israeli split in many of his films, most notably his autobiographical near-masterpiece, the 1978 film Alexandria...Why?

He was both a nationalist and an internationalist. He loved Hollywood movies — as a young man he went to Los Angeles, studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse — and he learned as much from their robust pace as he did from the gritty humanism of Italian neo-realist films and the romantic sweep of Indian cinema in its postwar Golden Age. He was both an art-house auteur and a director of popular hits, at least in the Arab crescent. He made political points, often different ones in different movies, but his didacticism was typically overwhelmed by his irrepressible urge to entertain.

Chahine established his early rep in the '50s, when Egypt rivaled India as the Hollywood of the Arabic-speaking world, and stars like Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama set moviegoers' heart aglow in Islamic countries from Morocco to Indonesia. In 1954 Chahine cast Hamama, who had been in movies since girlhood, and the 22-year-old Sharif, a recent college graduate making his first film, in Siraa Fil-Wadi / The Blazing Sky / Sky of Hell. This Romeo-and-Juliet drama set on sugarcane plantations was Egypt's entry at the Cannes Film Festival, and a pan-Arabic smash. It established the two actors as the great love pair of their time; their marriage the next year was a star alliance akin to that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the '60s.

Of his '50s films, the one to track down is the 1958 Cairo Station, which documents the tough lives of people peddling newspapers and soft drinks to train travelers. Though it moves on the tracks of tragedy, for much of its brief length the movie has the exuberance of '50s Italian comedies, with bawdy banter, tabloid stories of decapitations, and a saucy heroine (the Lollobrigida-like Hind Rostom) who tries to evade both the rail authorities and a sullen suitor (played by Chahine). At one point the girl sweeps her younger brother from the tracks as a train rushes by — no back projection, no stunt doubles, just plain old daredevil moviemaking. What's Arabic for "brio"?

Twenty years later Chahine made Alexandria...Why, which would launch his own Alexandria quartet; it was followed by An Egyptian Story (1982), Alexandria Again and Again (1990), and Alexandria...New York (2004). The first film is set in Egypt during the war, when Arab nationalists were killing English soldiers and plotting the assassination of Winston Churchill — anything to get the British Empire out of Palestine.

But this sprawling epic is mainly the story of a young man, transparently Chahine himself, who loves Shakespeare and American movies. Before the movie is over, fate will get him to Pasadena. What an elder says of him was also true of Chahine: "The boy knows exactly what he wants. He'll make it." At the end he sails into New York Harbor and sees the Statue of Liberty as Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" plays on the sound track. He glimpses some Hassidic Jews on the deck below him, and the Statue morphs into a heavy-set actress he knew back home. She lets out a ribald laugh — just the reaction Chahine so often wanted from his audiences when they were faced with the historical and emotional collisions of life in the modern world.

I've searched for the truth, again and again. 
I've loved so many, yet few remember me. 
They're in my heart. Am I in theirs? 
I stretch a loving hand — why refuse it?

Chahine loved his country, but he was the lover as critic — the kind who says she's put on a little weight and she didn't hold a free Presidential election for 24 years. Egypt loved him right back, but as a mother adores her son (like Mrs. Iselin toward Raymond in The Manchurian Candidate). When Chahine behaved well and got festival prizes, Egypt was proud; when he criticized powerful political interests, she sent him to bed without supper. His epic Once Upon a Time on the Nile, about the building of the Aswan Dam, was the first Egyptian-Soviet coproduction, but both sponsors were displeased by the director's cut, demanding reshooting and re-editing. The film, begun in 1968, was not released until 1972.

With Nasser, Sadat and Mubarek effectively playing his studio bosses, it's a miracle Chahine could get as much said in his movies as he did. One of the most sympathetic characters in Alexandria...Why is a young Jewish woman who had Hitler's Germany for British Palestine. "I thought I had escaped the Nazi inferno," she says. "Yet in Haifa I faced another." Destiny, Chahine's 1997 a bio-pic of the medieval liberal Muslim philosopher Averroes, was a forthright attack on religious fundamentalism; it begins with a burning at the stake and ends with the burning of books.

Chahine's derision toward fundamentalists goes back at least to Cairo Station, where he portrays them as comic relief: when they see dancers gyrating to rock n roll, the clerics mutter, "God protect us!" and "All these new-fangled ideas lead to Hell!" But Chahine was also a nationalist. His 1963 bio-pic Saladin, about the 12th-century sultan of Egypt and Syria, found a clear connection between Saladin's uniting of North African and Mideast Arabs against the Christian Crusaders and Nasser's formation of the Egypt-Syria United Arab Republic to fight Israel. (Saladin was played by Ahmed Mazhar, who had attended the Cairo Military Academy with Nasser and Sadat.) Several Chahine films, including The Sparrow in 1973 and the 1978 The Return of the Prodigal Son (loosely based on the Andre Gide novel), were set during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973; there was no question which side the films were on.

His fondness for America, and his reservations about it, found their final expression in Alexandria...New York, where an old filmmaker runs into an American woman he'd loved a half-century before. Yet Chahine always made distinctions between the American people and the U.S. government. In his contribution to the 2002 omnibus film 11'09"01: September 11, shown at the Toronto Film Festival on the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, he floats the argument that Islamic militants had the right to kill civilians in the U.S. and Israel — because these are democracies, where the people choose their leaders and thus are responsible for policies that enslave the rest of the world. The hand he stretched out here meant to slap the politicians but instead hit the mourning citizens of the country whose movies had taught him so much.

The problem with considering Chahine's career is that, just when you feel he deserves a good spanking, his movies play the cunning jester, and all is forgiven. Destiny, though its beginning and ending are literally incendiary, is at heart a ripping yarn with much buckling of swashes, and musical numbers, too. The Other, a hit at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival (where Chahine received a 50th Anniversary life-achievement award) and at the Toronto and New York fests, is a delirious blast — a politico-romantic amalgam of melodrama and music, at a pace and pitch that Bollywood directors wouldn't dare dream of.

In fact, it's a shame Chahine's work isn't familiar in this benighted part of the movie world. He was no minimalist Sphinx; he believed less was never enough. Embracing a splashy masala of styles, he threw everything — ideas, people, whole nations and regions — up in the air for the viewer to try to catch. And beyond his movies' entertainment value, it wouldn't hurt for Americans to see the visions of a cosmopolitan filmmaker from the Arab world, who speaks for himself but reflects the dreams and fears of a people whose popular culture is nearly unknown in the U.S. In the lyrics from that song in An Egyptian Story we hear, in all their naked emotion, the national fervor and questing heart of Youssef Chahine.

Your name matters little, nor where you dwell. 
Your color matters little, nor your origin. 
I love human beings, wherever they come from. 
O, oppressed brother, hear my cry! A cry from Egypt. 
O, oppressed brother, hear my cry! A cry from Egypt.

Published in Time

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