In Youssef Chahine’s autobiographical Alexandria, Why? (1978), set during World War II, the young protagonist could not care less about the
threat of Rommel’s army closing in on his port city. Yehia’s a Hollywood
musical freak; his dreams are of going to California to break into the movies. The
great Egyptian director had himself taken that route. Born in Alexandria in 1926,
Chahine made his way to the U.S. at 17, trained as an actor, then returned home and
made his directorial debut in 1950. Thirty-one features have followed. The most recent,
Destiny (1997), his courageous attack on Islamic fundamentalism, will be given
a theatrical run following this 12-film retro.
His early pictures were mainstream: family comedies, bedouin Westerns,
Sirkian melodramas, historical epics. He came of age with Cairo Station (1958),
an idiosyncratic mixture of neorealist social commentary, grotesque horror, and
lighthearted comedy. The crippled main character, played with searing intensity by the
director himself, is a railroad-terminal news vendor torn between desire for and
hatred of women. But a cross-section of the station’s passengers, employees, and
vagabonds is accorded equal screen time.
Chahine’s oeuvre became a cinema of ensemble pieces, dense
with subplots. This plays out even in his most personal work, Alexandria, Why? Chahine’s young avatar is at the center of the action, but the film accumulates a
good half-dozen stories that bid for our attention, including the romance between an Arab
boy and a Jewish girl and the doomed passion of a gay Egyptian patriot for the English
soldier he was going to execute.
Less cluttered, more firmly structured, Once Upon a Time the Nile (1968) is the revelation of the series. The first Egyptian-Soviet coproduction, it had
been conceived as a celebration of the construction of the Aswan dam. Chahine turned up
with something else, an engrossing account of how the giant project affected a group
of Russians and Egyptians who worked on it. Stunningly composed in Scope format, The
Nile‘s richly textured mise-en-scène creates a context of social
realism for a narrative of lush romance.