The Haunting


Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine's Destiny—shown in the 1997 NYFF—is a big, lush, boldly kitsch piece of political pop. The script is scarcely more elevated than a comic book, but its intellectual pedigree rivals Beloved's, concerning as it does the 12th-century Arab Andalusian philosopher Averröes.

Shot largely in Syria and Lebanon, Destiny suggests a form of Oriental orientalism. The scenes are lit like the portico of a Miami Beach hotel and it will sprain no brain to imagine Maria Montez as a player in this swashbuckling tale of rival princelings, gypsy dancers, religious assassins, and court conspiracies. There is, however, another agenda. Beginning with an auto-da-fé in which French clerics burn a fellow Christian for the heresy of translating Averröes, Destiny evokes a multicultural Europe and defends a particular mode of secular humanism—an exuberant alliance of intellectuals, entertainers, and free spirits devoted to tolerance and sexual equality. (The political is certainly personal: the 72-year-old Chahine grew up a Maronite in cosmopolitan Alexandria and studied film at UCLA.)

Shifting between autobiographical confession and maternal advice: Winfrey in Beloved
Ken Regan / Camera 5
Shifting between autobiographical confession and maternal advice: Winfrey in Beloved

Details

Beloved
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Written by Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks
From the novel by Toni Morrison
A Touchstone Pictures release
Opening October 16

Destiny
Directed by Youssef Chahine
Written by Chahine and Khaled Youssef
A Leisure Time Features release
At the Walter Reade Theater,
October 16-20

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Although Destiny is filled with spirited production numbers and even the zealots perform a mass prayer dance on the battlements, the movie's most ecstatic scene has Averröes's Christian disciple return north to his chilly homeland, piloting a skiff filled with books. As a philosopher, Averröes did ultimately have a greater impact on Christian than Islamic thought. (Dante generously includes him along with Abraham and Socrates among the virtuous heathens in hell's first circle.) But that is not Chahine's point either.

Destiny ends as it begins, with a huge bonfire. The difference is that the barbaric Europeans burn people while the more civilized Arabs only incinerate ideas. Even more than Beloved, Destiny is a movie that directly addresses its audience. Would the fatwa the fundamentalists declare against Averröes and his friends apply to this film as well? As the distraught philosopher watches his life's work thrown on the pyre, a friend whispers consolation: "I know your books are safe in Egypt." Let's hope so.

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