The most courageous frontal attack on Islamic fundamentalism to come out of the Arab cinema to date, “Destiny” is both an entertaining historical biopic of the influential 12th century philosopher Averroes and a blunt allegory condemning the politically driven fanaticism of present times. The two-hour-plus tale by the dean of Egyptian directors, Youssef Chahine, makes scant concessions to Western cinema, and pic will pose a challenge to Western auds not used to some of its conventions, like having the story interrupted by Egyptian song-and-dance production numbers. This should be one of the major Arab films on the fest circuit this year, while theatrical prospects will be subject to local auds’ curiosity about the topic. The reaction of viewers in the Arab markets will no doubt swing strongly in both positive and negative directions.
A Christian youth leaves medieval France after watching his father burn at the stake during the Inquisition. Arriving in Arab-ruled Andalusia, he seeks out the famed teacher Averroes (Egyptian star Nour El Cherif), a beacon of humanistic thought. Also gathered in Averroes’ school are the caliph’s two sons, sensible Nasser (Khaled El Nabaoui) and restless young Abdallah (Hani Salama). Averroes himself enjoys the favor of the caliph (Mahmoud Hemeida), who has appointed him grand judge, though the philosopher’s liberal judgments in the law court often put them at odds. In his liberal interpretation of the Koran, reason and revelation come together in morality.
Gradually the free spirit of the times turns darker, thanks to the political ambitions of the caliph’s rivals. Working hand-in-glove with the leader of a fanatical Islamic sect (Magdi Idris), they hypnotize the people into blindly obeying “God’s orders,” which are of course their own. To drown out Averroes’ voice of truth, the caliph orders a fatwa against him. His books are burned in a pyre and he is forced into exile. But his ideas cannot be stopped, because his students have copied his books and taken them to Egypt for safekeeping.
Very much an ensemble piece, the story develops around a large cast of actors who are not always easy to distinguish, particularly in the beginning. In the style of eclectic, anything-goes Arab entertainment, Chahine and his co-scripter Khaled Youssef weave together love stories, sudden stabbings and pregnancies, and the bonhomie of extended families grouped together at the Averroes’ intellectual household and at a rollicking gypsy camp. Egyptian star Laila Eloui is a delight as the generous, volatile gypsy queen who loudly embodies the untrammeled female spirit.
Pic knowingly depicts 12th century Arab Spain as a land of humanism and love, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived peacefully side by side. Chahine clearly finds much to identify with in Averroes, considering that his own life was threatened and his last film, “L’Emigre,” was banned in Egypt by fundamentalists. Film’s message of hope — that ideas have wings and cannot die — closes pic on an upbeat note and leaves auds satisfied.
Chahine’s penchant for comedy is given vent in the singing-and-dancing scenes, used at one point as a remedy against Abdallah’s conversion to fundamentalism. Shot in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, pic boasts some magnificent exotic locations. Music and cinematography are traditional Egyptian, though of superior quality.