Youssef Chahine: From Egypt With Love and Anger

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Egyptian movie director Youssef Chahine, left, standing behind a camera during the shooting of one of his movies in Cairo, Egypt.

Where does the truth hide?
Truth is my death; truth is my life.
Before the apocalypse comes, I search in vain for a way to protect you,
My Egypt, my homeland.

This song for a land in distress, with lyrics by the poet Abdel Rahim Mansour, comes from the 1982 film An Egyptian Story. It might have been the personal anthem of the movie's writer-director, Youssef Chahine, who died Sunday at 82, six weeks after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. His passing ended a busy, exemplary career that spanned nearly six decades making movies, myths and trouble.

Chahine is not well-known in the United States, even to lovers of foreign films. Few of his 40-plus features achieved any kind of release here, and you'll go nuts trying to find his stuff on DVD. But at film festivals, he was for decades the prime, often the only, representative of an entire continent, Africa, and a world religion, Islam — this though his family was Christian and his ancestors came from Greece and Lebanon. He was born in Alexandria and grew up during a chaotic time for the planet and for Egypt: World War II, when Rommel's Army marched toward his hometown, and the postwar invention of the state of Israel, which the Arab world viewed as a catastrophe. With various shades of commitment and ambivalence, Chahine would dramatize the Arab-Israeli split in many of his films, most notably his autobiographical near-masterpiece, the 1978 film Alexandria...Why?

He was both a nationalist and an internationalist. He loved Hollywood movies — as a young man he went to Los Angeles, studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse — and he learned as much from their robust pace as he did from the gritty humanism of Italian neo-realist films and the romantic sweep of Indian cinema in its postwar Golden Age. He was both an art-house auteur and a director of popular hits, at least in the Arab crescent. He made political points, often different ones in different movies, but his didacticism was typically overwhelmed by his irrepressible urge to entertain.

Chahine established his early rep in the '50s, when Egypt rivaled India as the Hollywood of the Arabic-speaking world, and stars like Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama set moviegoers' heart aglow in Islamic countries from Morocco to Indonesia. In 1954 Chahine cast Hamama, who had been in movies since girlhood, and the 22-year-old Sharif, a recent college graduate making his first film, in Siraa Fil-Wadi / The Blazing Sky / Sky of Hell. This Romeo-and-Juliet drama set on sugarcane plantations was Egypt's entry at the Cannes Film Festival, and a pan-Arabic smash. It established the two actors as the great love pair of their time; their marriage the next year was a star alliance akin to that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the '60s.

Of his '50s films, the one to track down is the 1958 Cairo Station, which documents the tough lives of people peddling newspapers and soft drinks to train travelers. Though it moves on the tracks of tragedy, for much of its brief length the movie has the exuberance of '50s Italian comedies, with bawdy banter, tabloid stories of decapitations, and a saucy heroine (the Lollobrigida-like Hind Rostom) who tries to evade both the rail authorities and a sullen suitor (played by Chahine). At one point the girl sweeps her younger brother from the tracks as a train rushes by — no back projection, no stunt doubles, just plain old daredevil moviemaking. What's Arabic for "brio"?

Twenty years later Chahine made Alexandria...Why, which would launch his own Alexandria quartet; it was followed by An Egyptian Story (1982), Alexandria Again and Again (1990), and Alexandria...New York (2004). The first film is set in Egypt during the war, when Arab nationalists were killing English soldiers and plotting the assassination of Winston Churchill — anything to get the British Empire out of Palestine.

But this sprawling epic is mainly the story of a young man, transparently Chahine himself, who loves Shakespeare and American movies. Before the movie is over, fate will get him to Pasadena. What an elder says of him was also true of Chahine: "The boy knows exactly what he wants. He'll make it." At the end he sails into New York Harbor and sees the Statue of Liberty as Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" plays on the sound track. He glimpses some Hassidic Jews on the deck below him, and the Statue morphs into a heavy-set actress he knew back home. She lets out a ribald laugh — just the reaction Chahine so often wanted from his audiences when they were faced with the historical and emotional collisions of life in the modern world.

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