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Youssef Chahine 1926-2008

Posted by Wesley Morris  July 28, 2008 06:16 PM

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The seminal Arab director Youssef Chahine died over the weekend. He was 82. Chahine is widely regarded as one of those great world filmmakers whose romantic and political themes were grounded both in a state of national affairs (in his case, Egypt) and concerns that transcended borders. It's true he strove to dramatize the Arab condition; pushed back against the Egyptian government's Islamist influence; criticized President Hosni Mubarak; and founded, more or less, Egypt's film industry. But he was also born of a Greek mother and a Lebanese father in British-occupied Alexandria (the family spoke four languages), so in many ways his art was determined to try to look past those nationalistic boundaries to locate and illuminate the joy, ache, comedy, and cruelty of being alive.

1958's "Cairo Station" is a thing of irrational beauty, one of the best movies ever made about the blinding hurt of unrequited love. Chahine cast himself as a crippled newspaper salesman who kidnaps the gorgeous lemonade lady (Hind Rostom) in love with someone else. The movie, through its neorealist backdrop, offers that doomed obsession as an outgrowth of what was then modern Egyptian society - the grind of daily life spurring, in this case, a psychotic. But the truth is more visceral than that - ultimately it's about Chahine's character wielding the jagged edge from a piece of his broken heart to lash out at the world.

Chahine, over the course of his 57 or so years as a filmmaker, did it all - musical comedy, the aforementioned neorealism, social commentary, dramatic autobiography. Everything seemed to excite him and that enthusiasm was often thrilling for us. His cosmopolitanism never trumped his humanity - one seemed to sprout from the other. His optimism about peace in the Middle East actually came at the expense of his popularity in the Arab world. 1978's "Alexandria... Why," for instance, was banned in various countries basically for bad timing, coming out not long after the balmy amelioration of the Camp David accords. But really the movie (still) makes the average coming-of-age movie seem shallow. Chahine's characters are dealing with Western disillusionment and Arab pride. There's sexual awakening, too. But the film gets at the emotional and polemical underpinnings of becoming who you are. It was an eternal subject for Chahine. The personal was political because in some parts of the world it simply had to be.

His filmography is here.

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