Tribute to Youssef Chahine at BAM


Egypt’s prolific cinematic ambassador, who died last year at age 82,
Youssef Chahine is remembered with an eight-film eulogy. Alternately
praised and banned under King Farouk, Sadat, and Mubarak, Chahine was
the most famous film chronicler of the pan-Arab world, with all the
accolades and responsibility of being his country’s unofficial
spokesman on the festival circuit. He “did” the Crusades
(Saladin), the Arab-Israeli War (The Sparrow), and
Napoleon in Egypt (Adieu Bonaparte, starring Patrice
Chéreau). Today, his films are scarcely seen in the
U.S.—save a clumsy contribution to omnibus 11’09″01, whose
defensiveness over fundamentalist violence belies Chahine’s
cosmopolitanism. (He was bisexual, from a Catholic family, weaned on
American movies.) His neorealist-tinged breakthrough, 1958’s Cairo
, starred the director as a crippled train platform vendor.
Alexandria . . . Why? (1978), the first installment in his
autobiographical Alexandria quartet, introduces Chahine’s alter ego,
Yehia, a young man whose passion for MGM fantasia leads him on a
pilgrimage from the German-threatened Egypt of 1942 to the Pasadena
Playhouse. Never cautious in subject or form, Chahine’s sprawl recalls
Fellini at his most extroverted (and scattered), including an amateur
theatrical reproduction of the Battle of El Alamein intercut with
newsreel footage, and a razor’s-edge affair between a British soldier
and a homicidal Egyptian aristocrat.