Youssef Chahine, the “Last Arab Optimist”

From Al Ard (The Land) (1969), dir. Youssef Chahine (all images courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato)

The film festival Il Cinema Ritrovato, held in Bologna, Italy, is devoted to screening restored, lesser-known, and/or forgotten classic films. This year, one of the main subjects of the program was the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, a preeminent voice in Arab cinema, hailed for his exuberance and the fluidity with which he moved between different genres and styles. Chahine was a liberal humanist, at times in conflict with his home country’s political and religious forces. He launched his career in the early 1950s, at the age of 23, and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cannes Festival in 2018, ten years after his death.

Chahine was born in Alexandria in 1926, to a Greek mother and a Lebanese father, and studied theater and television at the Pasadena Playhouse in California in the late 1940s. He witnessed dramatic changes upon his return to Egypt, where the monarchy fell to a coup in 1952, after which Gamal Abdel Nasser was elected president. Although Chahine’s 40 films include musicals and comedies, his most celebrated works focus on national and social themes, particularly the struggles of Egypt’s poor. Like many filmmakers who emerged during this time, he decried social backwardness, championed labor rights, emphasized collectivity, and honored both popular and folk culture. Chahine watched mostly British, French, and Italian films in his youth. The legacy of Italian neorealism is particularly notable, both in his subject matter — the focus on the plight of the lower classes — as well as his preference for shooting on location rather than in the studio, and infusing his images with lyrical symbolism.

From Sira’ Fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley) (1954), dir. Youssef Chahine (image courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato)

A fine example is the black-and-white melodrama Struggle in the Valley (1954). It stars a young Omar Sharif (given this name by Chahine) as Ahmed, an engineer who returns from abroad and helps farmers properly irrigate their crops, in defiance of the powerful local landowner who exploits the Nile, all while he falls in love with the rich man’s daughter, Amal (played by Egyptian icon Faten Hamama). Ahmed and Amal are beset by cultural divides, much like Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare was Chahine’s go-to inspiration for high-stakes drama), but with the specificity of class added in. Ahmed’s home is humble clay and brick, while Amal lives in a splendid palace. Plots around murder stretch the odds against the pair, setting the stage for them to transcend class in a utopic triumph. The magical backdrop of temple ruins adds grandeur to the melodrama, and the losses on both sides of the movie’s conflict suggest that justice prevails only after enormous sacrifice.

Chahine’s interest in class struggle also gave rise to his epic The Land (1969), which again pits wealthy landowners against impoverished farmers. Threatened by severe drought, the farmers draw up a petition to be allowed to irrigate their fields longer. They are thwarted, first by the wily mayor and then by military police. Even more than Struggle in the Valley, the film employs dramatic cinematography, this time in color, with keen attention to village customs, dress, dance, and songs. Chahine and cinematographer Abdelhalim Nasr create a world filled with sun and shimmering textures, as much a sensual revelry as a mournful look at inequality. In the memorable finale, in which a village elder is dragged across a field by the militia, the camera captures his hands in close-up as they tear up the roots of crops — a symbol of tenacity and love of the Earth and nature as much as of martyrdom. Thanks to the camera’s agility, the landscape becomes a character, its mutilation interchangeable with that of the farmers. Blood irrigates the soil, as if it were water.

From Iskindiria…Leh (Alexandria…Why?) (1978), dir. Youssef Chahine (image courtesy Il Cinema Ritrovato)

Chahine’s boldest, least classifiable film, Alexandria… Why? (1978), is a love letter to cinema, particularly to the magic of early Hollywood musicals and comedies. Although it got some dire reviews when it first opened in the United States in 1979 — writing for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it “a commonplace mess that attempts to fuse the clichés of the popular cinema into a kind of pop epic” — it’s about time that audiences revisit this boisterous, picaresque jewel. The film follows Yahia (a stand-in for Chahine), a youthful rebel living in Alexandria during World War II. While his upper-middle-class parents have aristocratic ties and a taste for bohemian indulgences — even during bomb raids — they are in dire financial straits, barely managing their rent. They want to send Yahia to an engineering school, but he wants nothing but a ticket to America. We see him prepare and perform in a school revue which turns out to be a florid flop, though it manages to spoof all sides of the war, from the pizza- and Mussolini-loving Italians to valiant Yankees and bloodthirsty Hitler.

The film’s jolly, satirical bent led some critics to call Chahine the Fellini of the Arab world — though he was sensitive to such comparisons, and once replied that Fellini was in fact the Chahine of the West. Indeed, his talent stems from a uniquely Egyptian milieu: the multinational cosmopolitanism of 1940s Alexandria and Cairo. Alexandria… Why? registers the looser social mores of the period, particularly among the upper class. In one scene, young men pick up a prostitute and have her cram into their car. One subplot sees Yahia’s aristocratic gay uncle fall passionately in love with a British GI whom he at first schemes to kidnap and to kill. We may view the Brits as heroes in WWII, but they had previously colonized Egypt, and thus were still seen as sworn enemies by some. The movie poignantly captures this nuance, and the tragedy of conflict across national allegiances.

If there’s a single common thread in Chahine’s filmography, it is his reverence for his fellow Egyptians’ endurance, coupled with his stout belief in progress, often against the rigidity of tradition or institutional religion. His is a profoundly individualistic, secular cinema, though one attentive to communal life and purpose. Chahine, whose own upbringing was upper-middle-class, mythologizes (and perhaps, at times, patronizes) the poor. And yet he also has the absolute conviction that history is always on their side.

Youssef Chahine — The Last Arab Optimist screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato from June 23–June 26, 2019. The program was curated by Tewfik Hakem
in collaboration with Cinémathèque française e Association Youssef Chahine.

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