Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cairo Station (Egypt, 1958)

My reviews of films from Egyptian cinema's golden age have a tendency to momentarily class things up here at 4DK. Cairo Station should prove no exception, as it is a recognized classic from one of Egypt's most celebrated directors. Formal attire may be appropriate.

Cairo Station looks to the bustling train station of its title--which also serves as the film's sole location--as a portal into the world of Egypt’s working poor, ignoring the thousands of commuters, tourists, and travelers who pass through its gates daily in favor of the various porters, hacks and vendors who keep its gears turning. Front and center among these is Qinawi, played by director Youssef Chahine, a newspaper hawker who lives in a lowly shack on the station grounds; this thanks to Madbouli, the kindly newsstand proprietor who rescued Qinawi from the streets. Gimp-legged, slow witted, and oddly passive, Qinawi is an easy target for bullying and ridicule by the calloused bunch who are his fellow workers.

Qinawi has developed a fixation on Hanouma (Hind Rostom), one of a number of unlicensed female juice vendors who make up part of the underground economy that has grown up around the station. A boisterous troublemaker, Hanouma teasingly encourages Qinawi's crush, even though she is engaged to marry Abu Serih (Farid Chawki), a burly porter who is engaged in an uphill struggle to unionize the station’s workers. Hanouma’s flirting inspires delusions in Qinawi that, once shattered, send him spiraling into madness, at which point Cairo Station takes a very dark turn indeed.

In terms of its cast, Cairo Station packs a lot of star power. “Egypt’s answer to Marilyn”, Hind Rostom (Ebn Hamido, Sleepless) imbues Hanouma with an almost savage sensuality while at the same time maintaining the hard, cynical edge one would expect from a character attuned to a life of scrabbling. As Abu Serih, Farid Chawki (Oh, Islam!, Antar The Black Prince), demonstrates the same brute physicality that made him one of Egyptian action cinema’s biggest stars and earned him the nickname “The Beast” among his fans.

The standout among the cast, however, is Chahine, whose Qinawi is alternately pathetic and sinister, sympathetic and repellent. Deprived of human touch, Qinawi can only look, and look he does. The walls of his shack are plastered with pictures of pinup girls, which, it is intimated, he spends most of his time clipping out of magazines and whacking off to. We are repeatedly shown close-ups of his eyes as he looks at the chests and legs of female passersby, and at Hanouma in particular. As wanton and free as Hanouma may seem, Chahine won't let us forget that she is nonetheless a prisoner of Qinawi’s tyrannical gaze.

Cairo Station was rightly praised by critics in its day, but Egyptian audiences-- accustomed to the frothy, Hollywood-style entertainments of Egypt’s studio system—gave it a much less cordial welcome. After all, while many films had at that point covered the topic of loneliness, few if any—especially in the Arab world--had addressed the issue of sexual frustration with such frankness. And it is indeed sexual frustration that sends Qinawi on the path to madness and murder, essentially turning him into a monster. Once he realizes that Hanouma’ s acceptance of his marriage proposal was only made in jest, he savagely knifes a friend of hers, Hawwalitum, thinking it is her, and stuffs her body into a trunk meant for Hanouma’ s trousseau, after which he attempts to frame Abu Serih for her murder. Hawwalitum, however, survives, and Qinawi, realizing he has avenged himself against the wrong girl, sets a desperate trap for Hanouma.

Like its namesake, Cairo Station contains multitudes, both narratively and in terms of genre. The primary story of Qinawi, Hanouma and Abu Serih is periodically pushed aside to focus on Abu Serih’s battle against his union-busting superiors, as well as a mostly silent story about a young girl who is waiting at the station to say goodbye to her apparently indifferent boyfriend. Stylistically, it combines gritty neo-realism with moody Film Noir atmospherics.

The film also, to some extent, works as a Hitchcockian thriller, albeit one that undermines its own suspense somewhat by playing havoc with audience sympathies. For example, it is still possible to feel sorry for Qinawi while at the same time fully appreciating the threat he poses to the women around him. Hanouma, meanwhile, is as cruel to Qinawi as she is kind, and Abu Serih, while unequivocally heroic in his efforts to establish a union, is also seen beating Hanouma mercilessly simply for dancing to rock and roll music. In short, there are victims here, but no heroes. The cumulative effect of that is that Cairo Station’s violent denouement, when it arrives, comes across as much more preordained and tragic than it does horrific.

The hostility toward Cairo Station on the part of Egyptian audiences resulted in it being banned in its home country for twenty years. When it was later rediscovered by more appreciative filmgoers, some claimed that it was the greatest Egyptian film ever made. I do not know whether that is true or not (I have not seen every Egyptian film ever made), but I would certainly recommend it. It is a well-crafted work of considerable risk taking, marked by both a clear-eyed vision of the human condition at its most humble and debased and an uncommon compassion.

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