Chahine on Chahine: The Alexandria Trilogy

Pamela Nice

Directed by Youssef Chahine
Produced by Misr International Films, 1979-1989
Distributed by Winstar (2000)

Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine is in his sixth decade of filmmaking.  He has made over 50 films, been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, and had the honor of retrospectives of his films at the Locarno and New York Film Festivals. Yet  relatively few Americans have had the opportunity to view his films.  Now three of his autobiographical films, packaged together as The Alexandria Trilogy (referring to Chahine’s hometown), have been released on video by Winstar.  They are subtitled in English, and can also be bought separately.  Hopefully, this will make Chahine’s work more accessible to American film aficionados, teachers and anyone else interested in Egyptian film.

One might wish for a different trilogy of Chahine films as an introduction to his oeuvre.  With the exception of “Alexandria . . . Why?”, this trilogy does not showcase the best of Chahine’s talent, nor give a sense of his range and variety. The translation of the scripts has weaknesses, as well, not showing Chahine’s writing to best advantage. This trilogy does, however, give us insight into Chahine’s artistic and personal life, his cinematic themes and techniques, and the trials of Third World filmmakers desiring recognition — and an audience — in the West.

Chahine has developed — perhaps even introduced — the genre of film autobiography, and one sees a progression in self-reference in these three films.  The first film in the trilogy, “Alexandria . . . Why?” (Iskandariyya …leh?, 1979), was co-written with Moshen Zayed and directed by Chahine.  The film chronicles Chahine’s coming of age as an artist during World War II, in the character of Yehia Mourad, played by Mohsen Mohieddin. The second film, “An Egyptian Story” (Haddouta Misriyya, 1982), is written and directed solely by Chahine.  It stars Nour El Cherif in a tour de force portrayal of the mid-life Yehia, who has been killing himself with his lifestyle.  We spend half of the film inside Yehia’s chest cavity as he undergoes heart by-pass surgery.  His life is putting him on trial — the prosecution led by his own “inner child,” with whom he reconciles by film’s end. 

The third film, “Alexandria, Again and Forever” (Iskandariyya, kaman wa kaman, 1989) not only is written and directed by Chahine, but also stars Chahine as himself (Yehia). He carries the self-reflection one step further by portraying Yehia in love — actually obsessed with —a young actor, Amr, who played Yehia in Yehia’s movie about himself. Thankfully, Chahine undercuts this exponential self-referencing by having other characters tell Yehia to stop it because it is driving him and them nuts!  This self-obsession is finally diverted by Yehia’s new fascination with a young actress who inspires an idea for his next film.  This muse is, like Amr, only half his age. (Some film situations seem to be universal.)

This progression in self-referencing through the trilogy progressively narrows Chahine’s audience, because it assumes more and more knowledge of his life, Egyptian politics, and inside jokes.  Who is the last film made for?  At the end of the film, Chahine dedicates it to “the struggle of Egyptian artists for democracy.”  But in fact, the film has been about Chahine’s struggle with himself, with Egyptian politics taking second place. The audience almost seems superfluous to Chahine’s autobiographical exercise here.  This is in great contrast to the first film of the trilogy, “Alexandria . . . Why?.”  In this film, we feel Chahine connecting to a larger world (and audience), just as his younger self once did with such hope and passion. 

The trilogy does introduce us to some of Chahine’s signature themes and cinematic devices.  The struggle against repression and discrimination, often brought on by religion, is evident in these films.  Homosexuality is portrayed in a straightforward manner, not sexually graphic, but with an intensity of desire less likely in Chahine’s heterosexual couples.

He juxtaposes different acting and film styles, moving from surreal scenes to realistic ones, from parodies of musical-historical films to philosophical love scenes reminiscent of Godar.  The effect of this stylistic dexterity is intensified by a fast editing pace. Humor undercuts characters who become too self-important.  In all three films of the trilogy, Chahine intercuts black and white newsreel footage with the autobiographical story, in color, giving the personal a grounding in the historical. Various metaphors of acting play upon each other:  there are films within films, plays, performances, and the quintessential “acting” character, Hamlet.

Hamlet is a thematic through-line in the trilogy — and how perfect!  Shakespeare’s hero is constantly reflecting on his own acting and inaction, dissecting his own motives and psychology, just as Chahine is doing in these films.

We see another progression in the trilogy in Chahine’s preoccupation with this character. In “Alexandria . . . Why?”, the young Yehia dreams of one day playing Hamlet. He gives an impassioned performance in an English class of Hamlet’s speech to his mother, comparing her former husband (Hamlet’s father) with her present one (the usurping uncle).  This scene has many thematic layers, tying it to Chahine’s views of the English in Egypt, the corruptibility of the indigenous Egyptian elites, and the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s hero, in spite of the fact that he was created by an Englishman.

In “An Egyptian Story,” Hamlet is again quoted and alluded to in the action.  Yehia Mourad has been committing a slow suicide by smoking 120 cigarettes a day, operating at an unrelenting high intensity, pushing away his wife and children, and battling censors daily on his film set.  Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy is central to this film:  will Yehia survive himself?

“Alexandria, Again and Forever” opens with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy sung in Arabic, prefiguring Yehia’s transition away from the English Hamlet. The aging Yehia’s attention gradually turns to Egypt, as he strikes with the Egyptian actors’ union.  His fascination with American popular culture —especially its music — finally leaves him. When he is still obsessed with Amr (and Amr’s playing of Hamlet), we hear American music swelling in the background.  They do a Gene Kelly soft shoe number as a love duet.  Later in the film, when Yehia has shaken off this obsession and focused on his new muse, Nadia, Arabic music and images fill the screen.  “Antony and Cleopatra” becomes his new obsession — still Shakespearean, but closer to Egypt!

“Alexandria . . . Why?” is the best film in the trilogy.  It has a clarity of focus and a thematic and imagistic depth missing in the other two.  It also has an historical resonance the others lack.  The coming of age of Yehia/Chahine is paralleled to the coming of Egypt into its own after World War II.  The personal and national stories reflect the sacrificial image of Christ on the cross — revealing Chahine’s Catholic background.  There are many sacrifices in this film — that of Yehia’s father’s career, so Yehia can go to an elite British school; the sacrifice of Egypt as Germany and England battle on its soil; even the sacrifice of the British soldier, whose individuality is sacrificed to national hatreds. This is movingly illustrated when the bloody body of an English soldier is washed up on the Alexandrian beach near the young Yehia as he is swimming.  The image of Christ on the cross flashes in Yehia’s mind as the body of the soldier bobs in the water near him. This is cinematic writing and imagery that reaches deeply into the heart and mind of the viewer. It challenges simplistic thinking.  This is Chahine at his best.

This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 32, Summer 2000.

Copyright © 2000 AL JADID MAGAZINE