Saturday 20 June 2020

Streaming on Netflix - Peter Hourigan alerts cinephiles to the availability of twelve titles by the Egyptian master Youssef Chahine

Youssef Chahine
The word is spreading.  Netflix has loaded an absolute pharaohs treasure trove of films by Youssef Chahine.

Over a long career Chahine (1926-2008) developed a filmography of 45 titles and became the first Egyptian director to gain a reputation outside the world of Arabic cinema. His films were screened in many of the prestige festivals with wins including Berlin and Cannes. Over the years I have grabbed any chance to see any of his films – an odd retrospective, once or twice on SBS, and last year at Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna – though ludicrous cross-programming meant I could not see all I wanted to. 
     So you can organize your own rich Covid-19 lockdown retrospective courtesy of Netflix. These are the films available, in chronological order with a few comments. It should be clear where they are my own comments from having seen the film.  I have asterisked * those films that I would recommend as good starters. I have given priority to the name used by Netflix where they are variations in title translations.
The young Omar Sharif, Struggle in the Valley
BLAZING SUN  (aka Struggle in the Valley 1954, 116 min) An example of his early work, when he was trapped in commercial Egyptian film production. This is a hoary melodrama – but enormously entertaining, and with brilliant b & w photography. There is also an absolutely ravishingly beautiful young man called Michel Chelhoub in the lead.  Later, he was to find fame in the west as Omar Shariff. 
DARK WATERS (1956 104mins.) Shariff again, in another romantic melodrama – but the social awareness is also very present. And more stunning photography.
*CAIRO STATION  (1958 73 min) Breaking away from Egyptian melodrama into full-blown Italian neo-realism, Chahine is laying his first claims to being a genuine auteur. A simple story set around the main station in Cairo, it is vividly peopled with a rich cast of characters.
THE LAND (1970, 129 mins) A powerful story, and Chahine highlights his social values in this account of conflict between a small village and the dominant ruthless local landowner. Political oppression and class division are very much to the fore. 
Return of the Prodigal Son
RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON (1976 124 min) I’m looking forward to seeing this.  From one review: In this Andre Gide adaptation, an activist is released after many years in prison and returns home, shaking up established relationships among his family members… Demonstrating Chahine’s eclecticism, this is an elegant melodrama, exuberant musical, layered allegory, and profound portrait  of personal and political disillusionment.
*THE ALEXANDRIA TRILOGY.  Commences in 1979 with ALEXANDRIA WHY? (133 min)  Chahine moved into autobiographical film making. In this first film the hero is a young man growing up in Alexandria during WWII but dreaming of Hollywood.  In the second film AN EGYPTIAN STORY (1982, 115 min) an Egyptian filmmaker remembers his life while undergoing heart-surgery. “We are drawn into his life in relation with the Egyptian revolution, his constant need for success, and the effect the American Dream has on him.” (IMDB) In the third film, ALEXANDRIA NOW AND FOREVER (1989  100 min) Chahine now appears as himself, a director embroiled in industrial turmoil in the local film industry, as well as his own obsession with his leading man and an actress he wants to work with.  What an opportunity to see all three films together!
*THE EMIGRANT(1994 130 min) Taking advantage of his international reputation, Chahine tells the well-known Old Testament story of how Joseph is sold by his brothers to an Egyptian and his subsequent rise to influence and prominence.  It’s fascinating seeing this story from an Egyptian perspective. 
*DESTINY (1997 135)  Set in 12thCentury Andalusia, the story of famous philosopher Averroes this is a rich story, fascinating in its picture of Moorish Spain from “the other side”, exploring important issues of freedom of speech and learning.  It is universal in its ideas and relevance.
      If you’ve tried searching Netflix you know it’s not easy. Publicity about this release of Chahine films on Netflix also listed SALADIN (1963, 183 min) but I have so far not been able to locate it on Netflix Australia. This would make eleven films while some reports have said 12. Let me know by email if you find a twelfth. Saladinwas a move into the historical, big-budget spectacular, with a cast of thousands (not CGI) and a bloated budget. It’s fascinating seeing the Crusades from the point of view where the Christian Crusaders are so clearly the baddies. But it is hard to engage with the film with characters too shallow, and overwritten dialogue preaching its nationalist points without any subtlety. 

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