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The Emigrant

Veteran Egyptian director Youssef Chahine comes up trumps with "The Emigrant, " a fascinating retelling of the Genesis tale of Joseph, shorn of both Judeo-Christian preaching and Hollywood razzmatazz. Though the relatively low-key pic is an almost impossible marketing proposition theatrically, festivals and specialized Eurowebs should give this space in their skeds.

Veteran Egyptian director Youssef Chahine comes up trumps with “The Emigrant, ” a fascinating retelling of the Genesis tale of Joseph, shorn of both Judeo-Christian preaching and Hollywood razzmatazz. Though the relatively low-key pic is an almost impossible marketing proposition theatrically, festivals and specialized Eurowebs should give this space in their skeds.

Historical movie buffs will find Chahine’s version particularly rewarding, told as it is from an Egyptian rather than Hebraic perspective. The only previous version of the Joseph tale is Irving Rapper’s 1961 Italo “Sold Into Egypt” (Giuseppe venduto dai fratelli), with Belinda Lee and Robert Morley, a straight telling of the biblical yarn, set some 3,000 years ago.

The Joseph character is here called Ram (Khaled el-Nabaoui). He’s a dreamer and proto-intellectual who’s bullied by his elder brothers and wants only to travel to Egypt, seat of learning, to study agriculture.

Ram basically has had it with the superstition-riddled nomadic lifestyle of his family, presided over by his father (French thesp Michel Piccoli, sporting a Moses-like beard).

Ram is escorted across Sinai by his brothers and promptly sold to an Egyptian , Ozir (Sayed Abdel-Kerim), who works for the military head of Thebes, Amihar (Mahmoud Hemida).

Through a combo of charm and cojones, Ram is virtually adopted by Amihar and given a chance to develop a barren stretch of land outside the capital.

Unwittingly, he becomes caught up in various sexual and political intrigues, first catching the eye of the impotent Amihar’s sex-starved wife, Simihit (Yousra), and later becoming a pawn in Amihar’s plot to foment famine and unseat Thebes’ aged ruler.

Simihit, high priestess of the Cult of Amun, has also secretly switched to the rival Cult of Aten. (This religious struggle also forms the basis of Michael Curtiz’s 1954 Fox epic “The Egyptian.”)

There’s enough going on in Chahine’s two-hour movie to fuel a miniseries, and the abrupt plot transitions, which sometimes impede full understanding, often make the pic play like a cut-down theatrical version.

But thanks to Chahine’s stress on character rather than spectacle, the characters slowly emerge as fully drawn beings, with notable playing by Hemida as the ascetic soldier, Yousra as his lovelorn wife and, especially, el-Nabaoui as Ram, who brings charm and even a measure of comedy to the central role.

As Ram’s g.f., looker Hanan al-Torki is a perky support. A dubbed Piccoli melds OK into the Arab cast, despite being there for the sake of co-production coin.

Technically, the movie is fine, with good, clear photography, fine locations, a rhapsodic symphonic score by Mohamed Nouh, and clever mixing of sets and Egyptian ruins. Occasional f/x are OK, too.

The Emigrant

(EGYPTIAN-FRENCH)

  • Production: A Misr Intl. Films (Egypt)/Ognon Pictures, FR3, La Sept/Arte (France) production. (International sales: Misr Intl., Cairo.) Produced by Gabriel Khoury , Humbert Balsan. Directed, written by Youssef Chahine. Script collaborators, Rafik el-Sabban, Ahmed Kassem, Khaled Youssef.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Ramses Marzouk; editor, Rachida Abdel-Salam; music, Mohamed Nouh; art direction, Hamed Hemdan; costume design, Nahed Nasrallah; sound, Dominique Hennequin; special effects, Excalibur; choreography, Walid Aouni; assistant director, Ahmed Kassem. Reviewed at London Film Festival, Nov. 15, 1994. (Also in Locarno, Montpellier fests.) Running time: 128 MIN.
  • With: Ram ... Khaled el-Nabaoui Simihit ... Yousra Amihar ... Mahmoud Hemida Adam ... Michel Piccoli Basma ... Safia el-Emari Hati ... Hanan al-Torki Tut ... Ahmed Bedir With: Seif Abdel-Rahman, Ahmed Salama, Sayed Abdel-Kerim, Amr Abdel-Guelil, Sid Aly Kouiret.