An Egyptian Story (Youssef Chahine / Egypt, 1982):
(Hadduta Misriya; La Mémoire)

Throughout, Youssef Chahine remembers Fellini’s key to self-analysis: "This is a comedy." His stand-in, a middle-aged auteur (Nour El-Sherif), rallies an army of extras for a scene but crumbles atop the studio crane from chest pains; the doctor declares behind-the-scenes stress and a hundred-plus daily cigarette intake as the causes behind the coronary pangs, though it's an artistic crisis that's really clogging up his arteries. The director spends his pre-bypass surgery hours quoting Shakespeare at the bar (" doth time waste me"), anesthesia catapults him from the operation table into this-is-your-life reverie. Chahine keeps the phantasmagoria airy -- the hallucinatory tribunal staged inside the protagonist’s open chest is a vast, pulsing plastic tent, with architectural ribcages like the whale’s cavernous insides in Pinocchio and oversized props out of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The procession of garrulous witnesses includes his mother (Soheir El-Bably), sister (Magda El-Khatib) and wife (Youssra), all wrestling "for a piece of the booty" while his preteen self (Oussama Nadir) chuckles in the jury box. Memories undulate on the screen, the ardent juvenile from Alexandria... Why? (Mohsen Mohieddin) returns to be seduced by a ripe older woman moments after getting his face bloodied during a protest march against British occupiers. Through El-Sherif’s harried filmmaker, Chahine revisits his nervous first trip to Cannes and reenacts a pantomimed Cairo Station pitch to his father-in-law producer; at a particularly exalted moment he flies over a maquette of the Manhattan skyline, at a particularly frazzled one he’s comforted by Henri Langlois in the middle of a rowdy Soviet film festival. The three-ring circus is far from seamless, yet it’s roped together by Chahine’s willingness to turn the camera toward his own contradictory passions and neuroses, his fierce Egyptian roots as well as his "dreams of the West." All directors envision their lives through the projector, but few can slice through the vanity and cry, "I am an extra with no dialogue!" With Ahmed Mehrez, Leila Hamada, Mohamed Mounir, and Ragaa Hussein.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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