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The Master Builder

It‘s a shame that the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s fine current retrospective of films by the great Egyptian Youssef Chahine doesn‘t include a few more gems from the first decade of his near 50-year career. Now an acknowledged international grand master in his 70s, Chahine was an A-list commercial director in the thriving Cairo movie industry of the 1950s -- the Arab-language film center many of us barely knew existed until UCLA unveiled it for us in April in the groundbreaking ”Music on the Nile“ series. Chahine turned out musicals and thrillers and romantic comedies then, and made a matinee idol of Omar Sharif. And on the evidence of Cairo Station (1958), the high point of this new series, Chahine was a great, instinctively popular moviemaker.

A blend of sensuality and film noir, set against a backdrop of lower-depths neo-realism, Cairo Station is essentially an underclass psycho-thriller. The director himself portrays a crippled news vendor whose passion for a slinky soft-drink peddler decays into homicidal mania. (He’s Tod Browning to his own Lon Chaney.) The Chahine of Cairo Station is a world-class engineer of expressionistic gothic shadow effects whose restless camera seems to peer into the souls of his fevered characters.

The mastery of craft Chahine developed at the studios carried over into his later independent ”art movies,“ the ones he started making after the nationalization of the Egyptian film industry in 1964. UCLA‘s decision to concentrate on personal independent projects such as the autobiographical Alexandria Why? (1978) and Alexandria Again and Again (1990), which were embraced at European festivals, is understandable, but also perhaps regrettable -- not least because it would be great to see a few more wonders from the Egyptian golden age. Still, it isn’t as if there‘s a stylistic gulf between the two phases of Chahine’s output. Material that had to be shoehorned into commercial projects (the subplot about organizing a union in Cairo Station) is simply moved to the foreground; Chahine‘s alertness to nuances of image, dialogue and performance never flags. Even in a frankly political picture such as The Land (1969), about a peasant uprising against a feudal landlord in the 1930s, none of the closely watched characters is ever just a mouthpiece for class attitude. Every one of these hotheads bristles with idiosyncratic energy.

Happily, the one new film here that is clearly a full-blooded match for Cairo Station is one of Chahine’s latest, Destiny (1997), a sumptuous historical melodrama set in 13th-century Spain, when an earlier wave of Muslim fundamentalism crested. Destiny is a magnificent mutant, a sort of Arabic A Man for All Seasons with high-stepping song-and-dance numbers. Chahine clearly idolizes his protagonist, the rationalist philosopher Averroes (Nour el-Cherif), a middle-aged judge in Muslim-occupied Spanish Andalusia. As a thinker, Averroes resists fundamentalism, ”which turns ignorance into a religion.“ But as a jurist he sympathizes with the rootless young men who have embraced the movement out of dead-end desperation, and refuses to condemn a teenager brainwashed into killing ”infidels.“ He soon clashes with the elegant Machiavellian caliph (Mahmoud Hemeida) who is exploiting the movement to divert attention from his own repressive policies. The caliph scapegoats the clueless killer to avoid placing the blame where Averroes thinks it belongs: on the movement itself.

Destiny is a suspense film of ideas. Its narrative is wound tight, its images sleek and sensuous. There is nothing remotely ”elderly“ about it, although perhaps only a revered veteran of Arab cinema would have dared to make it. Some filmmakers who ”graduate“ from commercial to high-minded personal work are inclined to let the subject matter carry more of the weight, to rest on their ideology. Chahine has never abrogated the craftsman‘s code: He still builds things solidly and well, from the foundation up. He remains a crafty entertainer even when he’s operating as a self-conscious artist with a cause, and in Destiny he seems to have been energized by urgent parallels between 13th-century Islamism and the late-20th-century variety. It‘s as if, in his seventh decade, he’s just getting his second wind. His most recent movie, The Other, was well-reviewed when it premiered this year at Cannes. If we‘re lucky, these pictures will usher in a new, great phase for Chahine, a personal golden age.

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