Thursday, April 27, 2017

Youssef Chahine | العصفور (Al-Asour) (The Sparrow)

several wars
by Douglas Messerli

Youssef Chahine and Lotfi Al Khouli (screenplay), Youssef Chahine (director) العصفور (Al-Asour) (The Sparrow) /1972

Youssef Chahine’s Al-Asour (The Sparrow) is perhaps one of his most overlooked films—certainly by English-language viewers. There are several reasons for this. The film, first of all, is focused on the government of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, at a time in 1967 where Egypt and other
Arab forces suffered a humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War, and, at the same moment, Nasser’s government was found to have been involved with crime lords who in Upper Egypt stole the stock and construction parts which were to have built a new factory that might have hired thousands of poor workers.

      Indeed the first part of this film is devoted to the search by one of two brothers for the outlaw Abu Khadr, who has purportedly been involved in the robbery. Yet the film ends with the other brother’s letters and presumed death in the Six-Day War, after having returned, with the elder brother, to Cairo to center its last moments on their mother, Bahiya (Mohsena Tawfik), who is the subject of a nationally-recognized song (sung several times throughout the film) devoted to her by her once-imprisoned former husband.
      Into this mix Chahine embeds stores of Mahmoud El-Meliguy, determined by vengeance to kill Abu Khadr, and a young boy, just as determined to reach Cairo in order to obtain help for his ailing older brother. Another central figure is a journalist, also trying to get to Abu Khadr in order to report the truth of his actions, presumably connecting him to Nassar’s government. Eventually, these major figures all interlink and become something close to friends back in the capitol, despite all of their differing motivations.
      If the story is almost impossibly complex in its embrace of national history, Chahine’s directorial method is one of quick, fragmented cuts as he shifts back and forth between the various narratives. At times, the dialogue is so rushed that it is hard for an English-language reader to simply keep up with the subtitles. Everything happens quickly and, often, confusedly, creating almost a jumble of plot possibilities.
      On top of all of this, when the film was first made in 1972, it was banned for two years because of its revelations about the connections of Nassar’s government to murder, theft, and corruption. Nassar’s resignation brought thousands of people to the streets, calling for him to return to government, but Chahine, more interested in the reasons for the crisis, spends very little time on what was later called the 1973 “victory,” using Bahiya as the major figure demanding Nassar’s return to power.
       Perhaps The Sparrow is best seen after reading up on Egyptian history,* and might even be better if watched several times (you can now do so on Filmstruck). Certainly it is a film of enough depth and complexity, as well as being one of Chahine’s most sophisticated works, to receive more international attention. Here the great director transforms his often personalized visions of Egyptian culture and family life into a vast landscape that attempts to embrace all of those “little sparrows” suffering and trying to survive in a number of different ways. 
     Chahine has always been a genius in his ability to convey a broad landscape, but it is generally through the lens of one or two characters, or focused on more singular backdrops (as in his Cairo Station). Here, the scope is almost epic, and to understand that the viewer needs the knowledge of what that broader picture represents.

Los Angeles, April 27, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2017). 

*A good essay on the historical meanings of this film is available here:


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