Over the past several years, Misr International Films, the company founded by the renowned Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine and currently run by his family, has been working with the Cinémathèque française, the Cineteca di Bologna, and other international institutions to restore Chahine’s eclectic oeuvre. Now the fruits of their labor are touring Europe. The Cinémathèque’s retrospective, which opened last November, wraps in Paris on July 28. Nineteen of Chahine’s features screened in Berlin in March, nine are currently being presented in Bologna as part of Il Cinema Ritrovato, and this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, opening on Friday, will show eleven. If we’re lucky, some version of this program will arrive in the States in the coming months.
When Chahine died in 2008, the New York Times’ A. O. Scott noted that in more than forty films made over the course of nearly six decades, the director “shifted deftly from urban realism to florid melodrama, from historical allegory to musical comedy, from social criticism to autobiography. Whether his subject was the domestic struggles of poor and middle-class Cairenes, his own youth in Alexandria, the building of the Aswan Dam or the life of the medieval philosopher Averroes, Mr. Chahine’s films reflected his cosmopolitan, humanistic sensibility, as well as his deep interest in Egyptian and Middle Eastern history and society.”
Chahine was born in Alexandria in 1926 to a Lebanese father and a Greek mother. Four languages were spoken in the household, and while he was raised a Catholic, Chahine harbored a deep distrust of organized religion. In 1950, at the height of Egyptian cinema’s golden age, Chahine made his first feature, the comedy Daddy Amin. He was twenty-four. Two years later, his second feature, Son of the Nile, would be the first of five of his films invited to compete in Cannes (and in 1997, the festival gave him a lifetime-achievement award). In 1954, his dramatic love story The Blazing Sun featured the on-screen debut of a young actor by the name of Omar Sharif. Joseph Fahim, who has curated KVIFF’s program, suggests that “the diversity and unpredictability of his 1950s output contain the seeds for the psychological complexity of Cairo Station (1958), the sweeping imagery of Saladin (1963), and the genre mashing of The Return of the Prodigal Son (1976).”
Of these three films, the best known outside Egypt is surely Cairo Station. Chahine plays Kenaoui, a mentally and emotionally unstable newspaper vendor who develops an obsession for a comely woman illegally peddling cold drinks in the train station. “Chahine conducts his big cast with uproarious energy, immediacy, and freshness,” wrote the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw in 2002, adding that there are “tremendous stylized set pieces, including a railway-carriage rock-and-roll number performed by a group gloriously credited as Mike and his Skyrockets. As Kenaoui’s love becomes more obsessive, the mood darkens, and elements of Hitchcock and Powell creep in.” Fernando F. Croce suggests that Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938) and Luis Buñuel’s El bruto (1953) “are the models for [Cairo Station’s] excoriating view of Egypt in flux, with repressed obsession and raucous abandon for the clashing forces.”
Throughout his life, Chahine fell in and out of favor with the Egyptian government and religious fundamentalists. “All my projects are high risk, and I fight like mad,” he told Joan Dupont of the International Herald Tribune in 1997. “I spend 80 percent of my time on politics, 20 percent making movies. Raising money is politics; every penny I make goes back into cinema. I can’t afford to stop.” In her obituary for the Guardian, the late writer and programmer Sheila Whitaker suggested that Chahine’s “more Mediterranean than Muslim Alexandrian background and often nonlinear filmmaking probably made him something of an outsider in the Arab world, while his adherence to Egyptian and Arab national, social and political concerns perhaps militated against wide acceptance in the West. But his substantial achievements and courage are undeniable, and although his later films were, perhaps, less imaginative and innovative than in earlier days, notably in his use of song and dance, he ranks in any world pantheon.”
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