Thursday, February 17, 2022

Alexandria...Why? (Iskandnerija…lih?)


ALEXANDRIA... WHY? (Iskandnerija…lih?)                    B+                                           Egypt  Algeria  (133 mi)  1979  d: Youssef Chahine

Bear with me.  What do I have but complaints and more complaints about this ship of misery... this tomb that is Alexandria.  Oh, Alexandria!  Why was I ever born here?                             —Yehia (Mohsen Mohieddin)

An autobiographical look at the changing face of the Egyptian identity, set amongst the backdrop of port city Alexandria during WWII, intermixing a heavy dose of grainy black and white newsreel war footage, along with a heavy anti-British sentiment, yet the Brits held the line against advancing Nazi Field Marshall Rommel and his Afrika Korps of Panzer tanks, saving the city from what would have been an historical catastrophe.  In many ways, Chahine’s childhood resembles that of Jacques Demy, as portrayed in a loving biographical portrait of her husband in Agnès Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes (1991), as both had a childhood love affair with Hollywood, a lifelong obsession that would continue into their adult lives, with both viewed as dreamers.  Much of the film deals with coping with the economic hardships of the war, where paramount on the adult minds was preparing for what appeared to be an impending invasion and occupation by the advancing Nazi troops in Egypt, with their eyes set on obtaining control of the Suez Canal.  As Egypt was under British colonial rule, one subplot was plotting acts of rebellion against the British, as Arab nationalists were killing English soldiers and plotting the assassination of Winston Churchill, anything to get the British Empire out of Egypt, which morphs into a homosexual love affair between wealthy uncle Adel (Ahmed Mehrz), a radical nationalist who kidnaps and kills British soldiers until he meets a drunken young British soldier, Tommy (Gerry Sundquist), where his plans go haywire, with the young Brit ending up in his bed instead, while another involves a romantic subplot between Ibrahim (Ahmed Zaki), a Muslim working-class communist and Sarah (Naglaa Fathi), a Jewish-Egyptian woman whose wealthy father is an anti-Zionist communist, with suggestions that all Jews are not Zionists, and could instead be part of a nationalist Egyptian struggle.  But the emphasis is on a young boy, Yehia (Mohsen Mohieddin), the son of an Arab father (Mahmoud el-Meliguy) and an Italian mother (Mohsena Tawfik), who grew up in a polyphonic culture of Eastern and Western flavors, surrounded by English, Italian, French, Greek, and Arabic languages, and living in a religiously tolerant environment where Muslim, Christian, and Jews all peacefully coexisted.  The film reflects the perspective of a young boy who lives in the fantasies of Ziegfeld Follies, escaping into a rich fantasy world, using a first person narrative to describe his exploits, a student at Alexandria’s prestigious Victoria College, attending movies, staging satirical shows as he dreams of studying filmmaking in America, who wants to do Shakespeare but also wants to direct a musical and make comedy skits about Hitler as Rommel is approaching, discovering reality and its impending horrors continually interfere with the stage shows he’s trying to produce, with mixed success.  Fragments of Hitler’s speech announcing his intentions to occupy Alexandria are mixed with utopian seaside images of Alexandria as a European tourist playground, spending restful hours lapping up the waves, spilling over to the beaches, where this idyllic scenario is met with a grand Hollywood theme that oozes innocence and romance, Theme from a summer place (Percy Faith version) YouTube (2:13), before quickly changing to jazzy American music from the 1940’s, like Glenn Miller - In The Mood [HQ] - YouTube (3:35) or watching Georges Guétary, aka Lambros Worloou, a fellow Alexandrian of Greek parents who ran away to Paris to become a Hollywood star, Georges Guétary - Stairway to Paradise sung in French 1952 YouTube (2:40).  Adept at mixing genres and styles, Chahine accentuates abrupt editing, fantasy sequences, and overlapping narratives, frequently changing moods from bawdy, lively, often lurid or melodramatic, yet full of bouncy pop music and flamboyant heart-on-sleeve moments.  Conveying a wide array of characters and emotions, this low-budget movie leads to a mad rush of a finale where family and friends finally scrape together enough money to send our young protagonist to America, the land of his dreams, yet even then he turns it into a comic sketch.  Despite the lengthy run time, there are few moments of contemplation, instead running at a frenetic pace, jumping over events, where the multi-layered style is often hard to fully comprehend, using a zany, irreverent style that feels more than a little absurdist, yet this fractured, kaleidescopic structure unearths plenty of new revelations 

Written by Chahine in collaboration with Mohsen Zayed, winner of a Silver Bear (2nd Place) at the Berlin Film Festival and the first of the three-part Alexandrian Triology, a coming-of-age saga that also acts as a Proustian personal memoir, this is an introspective look at the relationship between the director and America, developing an overwhelming obsession with the splashy Hollywood musicals of Esther Williams, Busby Berkeley, and the dancing sensations of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, yet equally mesmerized by a show-stopping number by Eleanor Powell tap-dancing on the decks of a U.S. Navy warship Eleanor Powell - Dance Finale from "Born to Dance" - 1936 YouTube (6:24).  Yet these fantasy sequences are juxtaposed against war footage, and the worst shock of his childhood memory, the death of his older brother, who was viewed as the favored son, with all the family hopes and aspirations placed on his shoulders.  When he died of pneumonia, which was incurable at the time, his death was blamed on younger brother Youssef, who inadvertently started a fire when he tried to light a Christmas candle, though it was quickly put out, yet it was used as an excuse for his brother’s death, with his grandmother lamenting, “Why did he have to die?  Why didn’t the young one die instead?”  This memory haunted the director his entire life.  His father opposed the idea of theater as a profession, preferring something more secure, like an engineer.  At only 17, after watching a movie on the life of Ziegfeld, the famous Broadway producer of lavish musicals, he attempted to emulate those stage productions, persuading a wealthy sponsor to allow him to rent the Alhambra cinema in Alexandria, but she only allowed two hours for rehearsals.  The result was a disaster, with spectators leaving in droves, many demanding their money back.  To his family, that was proof he was pursuing the wrong profession, but to him, it only proved he needed more experience and more rehearsal time, as his next attempt a few years later was more of a personal triumph.  Staging a theatrical production during times of war can be a tricky thing, as flared emotions are all over the map, pride, resentment, or fear, where timing is everything, as satirical lampoons may be viewed as bad taste.  Similarly, the film was released just after the realization that President Anwar Sadat had held secret meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin at the Camp David Accords, eventually signing a peace treaty brokered by American President Jimmy Carter.  To many in the Arab world, this was a bewildering defection that left them stunned and angered, feeling betrayed by one of their own.  Although this led to the return of the Sinai to Egypt, it was rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood and the left, strongly opposed by the PLO, believing Sadat had abandoned efforts to create a Palestinian state, which led to Egypt being suspended from the Arab League in 1979.  Just two years later Sadat was ambushed by an assassin’s bullet.  For Chahine to release this film under such surrounding political turmoil, it was viewed as backsliding into Egypt of the 1940’s, offering a nostalgic and conciliatry tone of forgiveness during a time the nation was incensed.  Many accused Chahine of complicity with Sadat in promoting normalization with Israel.  As a result, the film was banned in all Arab countrties except Egypt and Algeria.  From then on, bitter controversy accompanied each and every new release.  Chahine’s career was shaped by the turbulence of the 40’s, as anticolonial struggles began to gather momentum, with several Arab countries gaining their independence from France and Britain.  Yet the most volatile issue was the uprooting of Palestinians from their homeland in order to create a new state of Israel. Chahine’s own emergence from a minority group, coming from a Lebanese Greek Christian background, living in an Arab Muslim country, compelled him to believe in universal brotherhood, where demonstrating fundamental respect is an essential ingredient to amicable resolutions, as this film makes an unmistakable plea for a peaceful coexistence of faiths and a tolerance for the differences of others. 

Part of the film’s appeal is the unique editing structure, aggressively accentuating contrasting styles, keeping viewers off balance, continually reshaping the film, like love in the time of war, Egypt under occupation, lives under a constant assault of threats and turmoil, but also joy and the exhilaration of romance, where it’s a school movie, a movie-within-a-movie, using comic set pieces and fantasy sequences to describe how people are torn between the absurd and the incoherent, some prospering under the British, others see salvation in the Americans, others are willing to welcome the Germans, or even Mussolini, with a multitude of outcomes possible, becoming a psychological examination of the ever-shifting Egyptian identity, connecting with an international audience, while remaining true to its Egyptian origins.  Curiously, there’s no sense of unity among the population, where the multicultural experience of 1940’s Alexandria is not at all confusing to the protagonist Yehia, yet may confound western audiences, as Chahine breaks through the stereotypes of Egyptian models, presenting Alexandria as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, acknowledging Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Arabs, yet also Greeks, Italians, and  European Jews.  No minority goes unmentioned, while the various political trends include Islamism, communism, secular anticolonial nationalism, and Zionism.  Sarah’s brother David moves to Palestine to fight with the Zionists but is disappointed at what he discovers, as it’s not the promised land he expected, so instead his family sends him to an American military school.  Yehia himself seeks salvation in America, dreaming of attending film school, yet his family hasn’t the means to send him.  That all changes the moment he’s accepted to a school in Pasadena, as they scrape together what’s needed, creating a rousing crescendo for a finish, a poignant reflection of what he’ll miss, including his family and all that he’s leaving behind, while also offering a sly wink towards an uncertain future, accentuated by "MOONLIGHT SERENADE" BY GLENN MILLER YouTube (3:24), where this comes across as a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Even the director shows up in front of the camera playing a newspaper journalist in one instance, and a film director in another, where he even gives a knowing look directly at the camera.  The European colonial presence is accentuated in the clubs and streets of Alexandria, where the nightclubs are packed with British and Australian soldiers, while American and European music dominates movie theaters.  Yet Chahine highlights how colonialism manifests itself in Yehia’s school, which has a strict policy of speaking English only, the language of the Brits.  When studying Hamlet’s soliloquy, breaking it down into English was the assignment, but Yehia felt no personal identification through memorization only, so he decides to subvert the assignment by translating it into Arabic, basically using the colonizer’s tools against them, which immediately angers his teacher, ordering him out of the classroom, but he resists, continuing to recite Shakespeare in Arabic, which his British professor is apparently incapable of understanding.  It’s a profoundly significant yet also liberating moment, a sign of growth and personal change.  But the groundbreaking challenge Chahine presents is breaking the taboo of homosexuality in Egyptian film, where uncle Abdel is driven by a murderous hatred of the British, picking them out one at a time in order to kill them.  When Tommy goes off on a drunken rant at a follies-style nightclub, he makes a spectacle of himself, only to find himself half naked in Abdel’s bed the next morning, wondering what happened to his clothes, with Abdel still pointing a gun at him.  What’s apparent is that his life has been saved by sexual desire, with homoeroticism replacing the murderous impulse.  The two bicker about the situation they find themselves in, with Tommy denouncing being viewed as a minority object, with Abdel denouncing his denouncement, as the personal becomes the political, yet what’s clear is a shifting dynamic between the colonizer and the colonized, where a lustful relationship can grow, yet Tommy must return to the front to fight in the battle of El-Alamein, Second Battle of El Alamein | National Army Museum.  What started as an attempted murder becomes a tragic love story, becoming extremely impactful and especially poignant when Abdel stands before Tommy’s grave at the massive El-Alamein memorial site, El Alamein Commonwealth War Cemetery, Western Desert ..., with Chahine adding an elegiac tribute through a song of his birthplace, The White Cliffs of Dover - Vera Lynn (1942) - YouTube (2:55).  Very powerful stuff. 

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