باب الحديد Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station aka The Iron Gate, 1958)

There’s a potent, heady sense of melodrama at work here in this foundational Egyptian film by Youssef Chahine, even if it does turn on a rather creepy obsessive guy (played by the director himself). In its location shooting and heightened drama, it reminds me of the Italians of the period (it could stand alongside any early Fellini such as the ones I’ve been watching on the Criterion Collection recently). There’s a vibrancy to the filmmaking and a knowingness to the acting, and the black-and-white cinematography is striking. That all said — and I do recognise this film is 60 years old — I am certainly weary of scripts which use a disability (here a lame foot leading to a small limp) as a metaphor for some deeper existential malaise.

2019 UPDATE: Watching this film again on the big screen this time, I still see its continuity with Italian neorealism (which always did shade over into melodrama), and remain conflicted about the way it conflates its anti-hero’s criminality (he’s a proto-incel in many ways) with mental health issues and physical disfigurement, but you can see too a lot of the barbed commentary Chahine had for religious intolerance and the role of women in this society. However what struck me most, aside from the luminous cinematography, was the attentiveness that Chahine shows to the economics of this station: all the layers of people trying to earn money in various legal and sub-legal ways, whose jobs conflict and intersect, how they try to organise unionisation for the workers, the dirty tactics employed by the bosses. All of this vibrant detail plays out against a backdrop of obsession, madness and murder, but its the detail that makes it so vibrant.

Cairo Station film posterCREDITS
Director Youssef Chahine يوسف شاهين‎; Writers Mohamed Abu Youssef محمد أبو يوسف and Abdel Hay Adib عبد الحي أديب; Cinematographer Alevise Orfanelli
ألفيزي أورفانيللي; Starring Farid Shawqi فريد شوقي, Hind Rostom هند رستم, Youssef Chahine; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 14 March 2017, and since then at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.

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