Friday, March 10, 2017

Youssef Chahine | باب الحديد‎‎ (Bāb al-Ḥadīd) (Cairo Station)

a matter of perspective
by Douglas Messerli

Mohamed Abu Youssef and Abdel Hay Adib (writers), Youssef Chahine (director)  باب الحديد‎‎ (Bāb al-Ḥadīd), (Cairo Station) / 1958
While teaching my last class at Chapman University in Orange, as a substitute of Martin Nakell, I watched Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station, from 1958. This dark film so outraged Egyptian audiences of the day, that it was quickly banned. And, outside of international film festivals, it has been difficult to see in the West until recently, even though it was nominated as the Egyptian entry for best Foreign Film; the Academy Awards did not accept it as a nominee.

Yet the film is a sprawling neo-realist-like drama that engages us with the workers, travelers, and others inhabiting and visiting the vast Cairo Train Station, gradually spinning into a Hitchcock-like thriller that pre-dates Pyscho, the film it most resembles.

      Chahine’s work is painted on such a vast stage of various events and actions that it would be nearly pointless and highly academic to describe them all: among minor tales of a young girl about to lose her lover as he leaves Cairo with his family; a marvelous rock’n’roll group who perform under the name of Mike and His Skyrockets, terrorizing the traditional Muslin travelers; and a delegation of young women opposing marriage, are three interlinking series of characters that bring together all the cinematic threads woven by this excellent director. An elderly newspaper seller, Madbouli, takes pity on a down-and-out boy who is lame, Qiawi (played by the director himself), and gives him a job selling papers as well as finding a shed in which he can sleep. Qiawi, we soon discover, is a would-be ladies man, despite his poverty and rag-tag appearance, and has plastered the walls of his station hovel with pictures of women movie-stars and other glamorous figures, and has fallen in love with one of the several women who illegally attempt to sell soda to the passengers, Hannuma (played by the noted Egyptian film beauty Hind Rostom). Hannuma is ready to marry the burly porter, Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi), who spends most of his time attempting to build a union of his fellow workers so that they can be protected and make decent wages. But Hannuma is also a flirt, and teases Qiawi, who dreams of marrying his would-be lover and taking her to his home village by the sea, far away from the crowds.
       This quartet of characters is what truly drives Chahine’s epic story, and shifts it from a kind of generalized portrait of train-station life to a tense murder mystery worthy of our attention. 
        Particularly through the relationship of the gentle Madbouli and the outcast Qiawi, we begin to perceive not only that something is amiss, but that “the boy” Madbouli has taken in has two personalities. On the surface he is a kind and believing dimwit, but within deep passions are stirring, and when he is mocked—as he is throughout this film—he becomes something closer to Hitchcock’s Norman Bates than to a simple street urchin. 
       We first begin to notice this when we see him not only cutting “out” the newspaper beauties that line his walls, but later beginning to cut them “up.” And, after hearing of a murder in which a woman was stabbed, cut up with a butcher knife and placed in a wooden crate, the kind boy is transformed into a would-be monster, particularly after admitting his love and dreams to Hannuma, which she rejects, trying to help him perceive the absurdity of his plans.
      Ready to leave by train with Abu Siri for her wedding—a theme repeated in reversals throughout the movie—Hannuma packs her trousseau, while Qiawi finds his own crate, pretending to use it for Hannuma’s transport of her possessions. Chased by the police, Hannuma has been forced to hand over her incriminating drink bucket to Qiawi, and he suggests she visit him in a nearby warehouse where he has placed it. But at the last moment, in a hurry to catch the train, she sends another friend to fetch it. In the dark of the warehouse, Qiawi does not notice that it is not Hannuma come for the bucket, and reaches out with a recently purchased butcher knife to stab the unknowing victim again and again before shoving her body into the crate and locking it up. As one reviewer wrote, you might have thought Hitchcock had seen this film, repeating elements in his Psycho, if you didn’t know the work was generally unavailable.

     Through a series of events, both Madbouli and Abu Sir begin to perceive that something is terribly wrong with the lame boy, and we watch him growing madder by the moment and he speaks to stray cat as if she were Hannuma, replaying out all the dreams he has created for their life together. When the cat seems to mock him, he brutally beats it. And when he soon after discovers that he has not actually killed Hannuma, almost at the same moment the others discover the girl he has brutally stabbed still living in the chest, the entire station comes alive in an attempt to track down the would-be murderer and carry him away to an asylum at the very same moment when Hannuma herself returns for the still missing bucket.
      The last few chase scenes of this movie are incredibly intense, as Qiawi again tries to attack Hannuma as she attempts to fend him off to save her life, the entire series of intense intercuts ending with both characters on the railroad tracks, Qiawi holding a knife over her as the mob approaches. Only the gentle Madbouli, now the boy’s surrogate father, can convince him that the marriage about which Qiawi is obsessed is now blessed, and will take place immediately, if only he put on the robe prepared for him; as the boy stands in near-ecstasy, others slip him into a straight-jacket as he is carried off. 
       The strange voyages we have encountered in this film seem to be but a few mad days in a world of such intense cultural shifts and class and social differences that we wonder whether they might ever be mended, a question we still might ask about Egyptian culture today. 
     Combining these broader tensions with the inner turmoil of a young man, a bit like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (there are several scenes, in fact, where Qiawi is truly caught “peeping” at women, spellbound by their bodies), who knows he may never consummate his sexual desires, Chahine has created in Cairo Station a brooding masterpiece that speaks of cultural wars which all demand insiders and outsiders, people who are blessed and those who are not. But we also realize through the director’s kaleidoscopic vision, that these differences are often simply a matter of perspective.

Orange, March 10, 2017

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