I’m spending a week looking at Arabic language cinema, from around the Arabic-speaking world, stretching from North Africa across the Middle East. One of the key early figures in modern Arab cinema is the work of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and indeed Egypt has always been the powerhouse cinematic country of the whole region, with a range of popular cinema rivalling that of Bollywood to the East. Chahine integrates influences from France and the Soviet Union, amongst other traditions, creating some of the greatest works of modern cinema and he has certainly been influential in Arab cinema. I’ve already reviewed one of his earlier films, the excellent melodrama Cairo Station (1958), though these 60s works feel like quite different films.
الناصر صلاح الدين Al Nasser Salah ad-Din (Saladin the Victorious, 1963)
This is a full-blooded epic on the grand 50s Hollywood scale, with the same sense of a culture’s beneficent civilising influence on a stark and brutal world, albeit from the other side than we’re used to in the West. The European actors are often given rather glaringly ginger and blonde hairpieces to wear, and sure a lot of the chainmail seems to be knitted, but you don’t lose anything in the sense of dramatic crescendos. The battle scenes are loud and furious, and there are court struggles every bit as vicious. The version we watched was over three hours in length, and it did flag a little in the middle, but it built to some genuine coups de théâtre, including a cross-cut scene between the courts of the Europeans and Saladin, which are revealed via expressive lighting to be on the same sound stage, side by side, and the climax is a snow(!)-filled Christmas scene at Jerusalem. My favourite character was the sexy lady crusader Virginia (Leila Fawzi), who flirted early on with a character named the ‘Swimmer’ (or Issa, played by Salah Zulfikar, a Christian within Saladin’s court) and generally caused havoc with all the courtiers as she switched allegiances. It may not all be strictly historically accurate, but it’s a lusty telling of a grand story.
Director Youssef Chahine يوسف شاهين; Writers Mohamed Abdel Gawad محمد عبد الجواد, Chahine, Abderrahman Charkawi عبد الرحمن الشرقاوي and Ezzel Dine Zulficar عزالدين ذو الفقار (based on the novel by Naguib Mahfouz نجيب محفوظ); Cinematographer Wadid Sirry وديد سري; Starring Ahmed Mazhar أحمد مظهر, Hamdi Geiss حمدي غيث, Leila Fawzi ليلى فوزي, Salah Zulfikar صلاح ذو الفقار, Nadia Lutfi نادية لطفي; Length 186 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Saturday 29 June 2019.
الأرض Al-Ard (The Land, 1969)
A film that also feels like an epic, though it runs for little over two hours, this is about the relationship of the people to the land they live on, and is a reaction to colonialism and (one imagines) to contemporary territorial wars of aggression, though it’s set in the 1930s when the British were the dominant colonial power. We never actually see them, though a local landowner wants to build a new road to his villa which he attests will bring the civilising influences of running water and electricity, but which require cutting through swathes of irrigated fields and cutting the water that is used on them to amounts scarcely sufficient for farming. It’s the peasants who tend these fields who are the focus of Chahine’s film, particularly the uncooperative Abou Swalem (Mahmoud El-Meliguy), his daughter Wassifa (Nagwa Ibrahim), and Abdel Hadi (Ezzat El Elaili), a strong young local man who is wooing Wassifa for his wife. There’s plenty here, though, including the operation of class (notably between the educated family with an uncle in the big city of Cairo, and that of Abou Swalem, who are fully dedicated to the soil) and the influence of intolerant religious practices (such as calls for prayer which get Abou Swalem rolling his eyes, and the story of a local girl accused of having loose morals). All of this is set against a tragic arc which is signalled through the repeated use of a song that speaks of how the people “will irrigate the soil with their blood” if necessary. Water in this place is truly life, the blood of its people, and the emotion that motivates all the drama of the film.
Director Youssef Chahine يوسف شاهين; Writers Hassan Fuad حسن فؤاد (based on the novel by Abderrahman Charkawi عبد الرحمن الشرقاوي); Cinematographer Abdelhalim Nasr عبدالحليم نصر; Starring Mahmoud El-Meliguy محمود المليجي, Nagwa Ibrahim نجوى إبراهيم, Ezzat El Elaili عزت العلايلي; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019.