Legendary Egyptian helmer Youssef Chahine, by some measure the most celebrated Arab filmmaker of recent times, died July 27 at the age of 82 at Maadi military hospital in Cairo, four weeks after falling into a coma following a brain hemorrhage.
The iconoclastic filmmaker, more than any his peers, had helped give Egyptian cinema international exposure for over five decades.
He had been ill for some time and had to share directing duties on his last film “Chaos” with co-helmer and protege Khaled Youssef after the physical demands of the shoot began to take its toll.
Fittingly the pic, a sprawling melodramatic take on everything from police corruption, torture and rape in Cairo, was Chahine’s biggest-ever domestic commercial hit and topped the Egyptian box office when released late last year.
Youssef, who has since established himself as one of Egyptian cinema’s most distinctive new voices with pix such as “Heena maysara” and “Al-Rayess Omar Harb” was one of the pall-bearers at the helmer’s July 28 Cairo funeral.
Chahine enjoyed an illustrious career spanning more than half a century. He came of age during Egyptian cinema’s golden age in the 1950’s when the country’s film industry, dubbed Hollywood on the Nile, lagged behind only Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of film production.
“Cairo Station,” Chahine’s 1958 feature in which he also appeared, is arguably the great director’s masterpiece although other works such as “Al-asfur” (“The Sparrow”), “Al-ard” (“The Land”) and the 1954 “Al-siraa fil wadi” (“Struggle in the Valley”), in which Chahine gave Omar Sharif his first role, are all considered classics of Arab cinema.
Chahine, who studied acting in the U.S. during the 1940s, retained a long-held love affair with America, even devoting the final part of his “Alexandria” trilogy to his time spent in New York with the 2004 feature “Alexandria…New York.”
In his later years Chahine become increasingly critical of American foreign policy in the Middle East and was also a vocal opponent to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. His 1997 feature “Al-massir” (“Destiny”) presciently foretold the dangers of religious extremism. That same year he was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Cannes film festival. “Chaos” was selected in competition in last year’s Venice Film Festival and Chahine personally attended the film’s preem despite his ailing health.
While an outspoken critic of intolerance, government corruption and religious fundamentalism, Chahine was noteworthy for often combining surreal flights of fancy, melodrama and musicality amidst his hard-hitting messages.
Venice fest topper Marco Muller declared that this year’s event would include a homage to the filmmaker. “The 65th Mostra will be dedicated to Youssef Chahine, a unique filmmaker: who else could have succeeded in mixing the philosopher Averroes with Fred Astaire? That’s what cinema should be about,” commented Muller during a Rome confab unveiling this year’s Venice line-up.