Two Early Films by Youssef Chahine: The Blazing Sun (1954) and Dark Waters (1956)

There’s an Algerian film called Papicha (2019) out in cinemas in the UK at the moment. I haven’t seen it yet, because I’m not exactly going out a lot, but I do mean to do so. Therefore, in honour of that I’m doing a North African cinema week, which will probably mostly be Tunisian and Egyptian films, because I’ve not seen many Algerian ones (and I covered one in my recent Global Cinema entry for the country). Turning to Egypt, I’ve covered Youssef Chahine’s films before, but he was responsible for bringing Omar Sharif to the screen. Sharif’s first two films for Chahine partnered him with Faten Hamama in the mid-1950s (though Chahine had made a few with Hamama before) and they have matching titles in the original, usually translated more literally as Struggle in the Valley and Struggle in the Pier. However, like many non-English language films in the period, distributors seem to have been fairly inconsistent and a variety of titles are attested. On Netflix they are The Blazing Sun and Dark Waters respectively (and that’s what I’ve used here), which have a more poetic ring perhaps, but either way both are full-blooded melodramas reminiscent of contemporary Hollywood productions.

صراع فى الوادي Sira` fi al-wadi (The Blazing Sun aka Struggle in the Valley, 1954)

Of all the films I’ve seen directed by Youssef Chahine (and this is only the sixth), I think The Land is my favourite. However, this earlier film, the screen debut of Omar Sharif, has some similar themes, dealing with the peasants of a small village who are helped by Ahmed (that’s Sharif), the engineer son of a local village leader, to maximimise their sugar cane crop yields, angering the rich Pasha (Zaki Rostom) who finds himself slightly shut out of the lucrative trade. But he’s a petty man, so immediately sets his nephew Riad out to flood the village’s crops and ensure his get the best price. Pushing this over into full-blown melodrama, though, is the love springing up between Ahmed and the Pasha’s daughter (the luminous Faten Hamama, who’d go on to marry Sharif, though her career had been much longer). The Arabic title, then (“Struggle in the Valley”), alludes to this conflict, not to mention its tourism-friendly setting of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. It’s all full-blooded, invoking long-simmering familial disputes, as the lies being told by Pasha and Riad are quickly and easily believed by Ahmed’s extended family and the village he lives in, who soon turn against him. It’s all shot in glorious black-and-white, and despite restoration, clearly some of the shots were in patchier condition than others, but at least it’s been preserved. Surely a key film in Egyptian cinema.

The Blazing Sun film posterCREDITS
Director Youssef Chahine يوسف شاهين; Writers Ali El Zorkani علي الزرقاني and Helmy Halim حلمي حليم‎; Cinematographer Ahmed Khorshed أحمد خورشيد; Starring Faten Hamama فاتن حمامة, Omar Sharif عمر الشريف, Zaki Rostom زكي رستم; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 28 June 2020.

صراع فى الميناء Sira` fi el-minaa (Dark Waters aka Struggle in the Pier, 1956)

Omar Sharif glowers and smoulders his way through his second Chahine starring role as the working-class sailor Ragab, who has returned after several years hoping to pick up with his flame Hamedah (Faten Hamama), but she is now stepping out with the rich Mamdouh (Ahmed Ramzy). Of course, all these young peoples’ fates are intertwined with their families, and for all that he initially comes across as a bit of a playboy, Mamdouh in fact has a somewhat tragic role, caught between family interests and his feelings for Hamedah. Ragab on the other hand is more of a brute, though one gets the feeling that his sporadic drunken violence towards Hamedah and his conservative, possessive remarks were more in line with cultural values of the time; at the very least she does not take any of it submissively, but fights back just as hard, never one to meekly capitulate to anyone. Still, there’s a lot of full-throated hollering, with Sharif dripping sweat after a day on the docks, and the gorgeously contrasted black-and-white photography takes full advantage of all of it.

Dark Waters film posterCREDITS
Director Youssef Chahine يوسف شاهين; Writers Chahine, Lezait Fayed ليزيت فايد, Mohamed Refaat محمد رفعت and El Sayed Bedeir السيد بدير; Cinematographer Ahmed Khorshed أحمد خورشيد; Starring Faten Hamama فاتن حمامة, Omar Sharif عمر الشريف, Ferdoos Mohammed فردوس محمد, Ahmed Ramzy أحمد رمزي‎; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 22 June 2020.


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