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Alex Deleon reviews the Youssef Chahine Retrospective in Berlin


Hend Rostom and Youssef Chahine as Qenawi in "Cairo Station"

By Alex Deleon

Youssef Chahine (1926-2008) was the leading Egyptian film director all through the second half of Twentieth Century active in the industry from 1950 until his death. He was the only Egyptian filmmaker to achieve international recognition with films at Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Moscow and received a lifetime achievement award at Cannes in 1997. He wrote most of his own scripts and was a competent actor appearing in four of his own films. Altogether Chahine was the auteur of about forty  films 21 of which have been on view at the Arsenal  cinema all through the month of March in a rare retrospective entitled "Youssef Chahine, Again and Forever.

The Arsenal Cinema which is a central venue of the Berlin Film Festival is a kind of German Cinematheque and continues to screen unusual film series such as this throughout the year providing Berliners with what amounts to a year-round film festival.

I was able to view five of the Chahine films, a limited but enlightening sampling of his career.  Most were 35mm prints with English subtitles.

Brief notes follow.

  1. Lady on a Train (Sayyidat al-Qitar) 1953. 100 min. B/w.

This is an early film showcasing the vocal talent of the famous singer Leila Mourad who plays a double role as the heroine snd then her aging mother.  This is pure melodrama from Chahine's early period when he had not yet hit his stride but nevertheless shows flashes of the brilliance to come.  The famous singer is believed to have been killed in a train wreck early in the film but survives and is cared for by some peasants who nurse her back to health. Meanwhile her nefarious husband who has embezzled a large sum from his company to pay off gambling debts cashes in on her life insurance. When he finds that she is still alive he is appalled and has to hide her to keep from being exposed and ruined.  She goes along with this deception for a while but finally the separation from her beloved little girl is too much and she threatens to expose the husband's criminal activity.  He flees the country taking the little girl with him, thus setting the scene for part 2 in which the child has grown up and is the spitting image of her long lost mother. (Again actress Leila Mourad).  Leila will reappear now as an old lady in white hair, but is not recognized until the final melodramatic confrontation and reunion with her daughter.  Kind of fun with an incredibly intricate plot of the kind Chahine would handle later with much better control.

  1. Fagr Yom Guedid (Dawn of a New Day) 1964. color.  130 min.  A far more sophisticated drama in which Chahine himself has a major supporting role as the materialistic  husband of an attractive middle aged woman (Sanaa Gamil) who falls im love with a strikingly handsome 22 Year old student but cannot escape from her loveless marriage. This film is notable for its depiction of the lives of the decadent wealthy of Cairo on the verge of a revolution that will bring them all down. In this respect a kind of Egyptian answer to Fellini's Dolce Vita, Fellini being a director to whom Chahine is often compared. 
  2. Cairo Station (Bab al-Hadid) 1958.  B/w. 76 min.  This is one of Chahines shortest and most compact films and is a central peak of his filmography. This is more about the poor people who live and work around the station than about the station itself and Chahine is all but unrecognizable as the scraggly central figure of the drama, Qenawi. Qenawi is a poor cripple who has been taken in out of pity by a station kiosk holder and sells newspapers to earn his keep as he limps pitifully about the station.  He is also sex obsessed and papers the walls of his cubbyhole with sexy female cutouts from magazines.  He fixates on a most attractive and saucy young lady Hanouma (Hind Rostom) who sells cold drinks illegally on the trains, but she is in love with a hefty porter. She leads him on jokingly but this is no joke to Qenawi who, although penniless, wants to marry her himself and finally, realizing that she is only taunting him decides to kill her. However the wrong girl comes to the fatal warehouse and gets stabbed by him in the dark.  In the end he is caught and the men in white come to take him away.  This film made quite a stir at the Berlin film festival and brought the director  his first international recognition.
  3. Alexandria, Why? (Iskindereya, Leh?) 1979. Color. 133 min.                 This coming of age story is set against the WW II events when the Germans were closing in on Alexandria and many people thought a German occupation would be preferable to that of the hated British.  The film opens with remarkable archival footage of Rommel's approaching  Afrika Korps and whoppo  shots of Hitler making speeches before large crowds, but eventually settles into the life of teenager Yehia (Chahine) who against the wishes of his father aspires to be an actor. In one scene Yehia declaims a long sequence from Hamlet and is applauded by his classmates. In the end Rommel's army will be stopped at El Alamein in what became the turning point of the war and, after a desperate search to raise enough money for a trip to America (where Yehia has been accepted for  study at the Pasadena Playhouse) he gets on the ship and the last image is the face of the Statue of Liberty coming to life with a derisive laugh. This picture sags somewhat in the middle where it  features a homoerotic relationship between an Egyptian killer of Allied soldiers who falls in love with one of his potential victims.  Of primary interest for the historical,and political background. Pop songs and music of the time set the tone including a full version of Perfidia sung in Spanish and the swingtime instrumental.  "In the Mood".
  5. Hadouta Masriya (An Egyptian Story) 1982. Color. 115 min.  This totally autobiographical look back at Chahine's entire life and career up till then is notable above all for the Egyptian top star Nour el-Sherif portraying the mature director Chahine.  The film starts on the set of a film he is shooting where he suffers a mild heart attack high up on a platform while directing.   Doctors decision. Your heart arteries are blocked and you need an immediate bypass operation.  Also no more cigarettes. He was smoking 150 a day!  The operation takes place in London and the body of the film is the directors fantastic dream as his entire life passes before him under anesthesia. We see him with all his doubts at various festivals. Most interesting is a flashback to Cairo Station when it is being shown at Berlin. News arrives that Chahine has won the best actor award for his portrayal of the lame sex obsessed killer. But it was a mistake. He should have been there to show people that he was not really a cripple, but only acting.  All this is taking place at some kind of celestial courthouse trial where his child hood self keeps accusing him of lack of love.  In the end when he comes out of the surgery he will at last be reintegrated with the child still lurking within. Another extremely complex plot of the kind that Chahine kept trying to balance while always walking a creative high wire.  His films require patience but reward viewers with a unique directorial view as well as a total inside picture of modern Egyptian society.


Personal Quote: I am young. I am only 81 years old. I hope I can keep working for another 10 years. Old age is to let oneself become old.



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Berlin 2019: The dailies from the Berlin Film Festival brought to you by our team of festival ambassadors. Vanessa McMahon, Alex Deleon, Laurie Gordon, Lindsay Bellinger and Bruno Chatelin...
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