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  • Ravi Swami

"Cairo Station", Dir: Youssef Chahine, 1958

Updated: May 1, 2021

I've pretty much abandoned Netflix over lockdown as my attention is focussed on other streaming services for their catalogues of classic vintage world cinema, something that was a feature of Netflix before it grew into the behemoth that it is now and its' current catalogue of newly commissioned series and recent feature films.

However, over the past few days I've been idly scanning what's available on the streaming service, possibly because of the buzz surrounding certain films, in particular "Love & Monsters" which was nominated for a visual effects Oscar this year. Due to the jumble of bought-in content and quality it's becoming difficult to distinguish what is a feature film originally destined for cinema and what is new episodic content and "Love & Monsters" felt very much like the latter - another reason to avoid it, but that's just a case of personal preference.

I did watch it and may review it in due course but in the meantime I found this rather unusual gem of a film that stuck out like a sore thumb in amongst its' current list of content and initially appeared to me to be a recent pastiche of a 50's / 60's film along the lines of "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" , even though the date listed, 1958, suggested otherwise and immediately invited further investigation.

I'm not familiar at all with Egyptian cinema but was intrigued by the brief synopsis and a short B/W clip in the listing that ran counter to the perception that films from the Middle East of the era would inevitably be of poor image quality.

In fact, from the opening shots of a train station in 1950's Cairo, it becomes clear that no expense was spared in the quality of the cinematography and I guess credit is due to Netflix for sourcing such a fine quality print of an example of neo-realist cinema from a region noted more, perhaps in the West, for romantic pot-boilers and an over the top acting style.

The fact that French is a spoken second language in many parts of the Middle East suggests that the influence of the French neo-realist movement in film had spread far and wide and seemed a perfect approach for depicting the tumultuous social changes sweeping across Egypt and the Middle East in the immediate post war period and where the influence of the West was starting to be felt - in the film represented by Coca Cola.

Youssef Chahine's "Cairo Station" could be described as a film noir since it involves a murder, or at least an attempted murder and draws in many commentaries on issues surrounding the position of women in Muslim society and their treatment by men and also tackles an issue that in other hands could be distorted for sensationalism - sexual obsession - something that seems strikingly original for a film from the late 1950's and in particular originating in the Middle East.

It also handles this with some degree of sympathy for the perpetrator and as a viewer you are drawn into his world in a way that feels uncomfortable but never invites you to judge too harshly - it's only when the obsession reaches a peak where murder is contemplated that you feel revulsion - the key difference is that the reasons and motivations are set out and the killer is no psychotic counterpart to Anthony Bates' bogeyman character in Hitchcock's "Psycho", though by the end his descent into insanity is made clear and invites pity.

The story takes place in a busy Cairo train station of the late 1950's populated by stalls of news vendors, the porters who handle passenger's luggage and the women who ply an illegal trade in soft drinks on arriving trains and who frequently get into trouble with the law since they are unfair competition for the vendor of refreshments employed by the station.

A news vendor with a kiosk takes pity on Qinawi (an astonishing performance by the director, Youssef Chahine), a scruffy vagabond he finds on a pavement and to whom he offers employment as a newspaper seller, and using his kiosk as a pitch. Concerned for Qinawi's welfare he decides to visit the ramshackle tin shack hovel that is his home and is disturbed to discover that the walls are plastered with photos of semi-naked women that Qinawi has clipped out of unsold newspapers and he connects this with Qinawi's growing obsession for the beautiful Hanumma (Hend / Hind Rostom, considered the Marilyn Monroe of Middle Eastern cinema at one time), one of the illegal soft drink sellers, who he has stated he wants to marry and take back to his village.

There are several obstacles to Qinawi's wish, however - he has a club foot that causes him to limp, is poor and Hanumma is in love with Abu Siri, a burly station porter, and intends marrying him, though she flirts outrageously with Qinawi, and in fact any man, for both her own amusement and because she knows she will sell more bottles of Coca Cola, something she is shown to be very adept at compared to the other women who provide the same service and with whom she forms a loyal group with a shared fear of arrest by the police.

With this main plot at the forefront to the film, Chahine introduces parallel strands of a more chaste romance featuring a teenaged young woman in Western dress who wants to meet her lover away from the view of their respective families, perhaps as device to address changing attitudes in what was previously a very strict environment for both women and men. Additionally, Hanumma's lover, Abu Siri, locks horns with the manager of the station porters when he announces that he intends forming a union to protect their rights and fight for better wages after one of his crew is badly injured.

Qinawi is both an object of pity and derision by the other station workers but he appears to take this in good humour, though in reality he harbours a bitter resentment for his treatment and hopes that Hanumma is his chance to escape and improve his social standing despite his disability - something that is not so major that he cannot walk or run but that nonetheless invites cruel ridicule.

Things take a turn when Hanumma scorns and ridicules his advances and later, when he hears details of a gruesome murder of a woman found dismembered in a crate and where the perpetrator has escaped justice, he concocts a plan to do the same to Hanumma. He is spurred on after he witnesses a violent argument between Hanumma and Abu Siri that culminates with the two apparently making love in a warehouse, or at least that is the inference.

Chahine cleverly uses the device of railway tracks bouncing up and down rhythmically on sleepers as a train passes by in a series of repeated cuts that Qinawi watches from outside of the warehouse, reflecting both the audience's and Qinawi's assumptions about what is going on inside, without actually showing anything explicit.

This pushes Qinawi into a jealous rage and an excuse to act on his plan comes when Abu Siri, apologetic after bullying him earlier on, asks him to load a trunk containing Hanumma's trousseau onto a train after moving it to a nearby warehouse for storage. It is here that Qinawi hides after stealing the bucket that Hanumma uses to carry her soft drinks and where he plans to rendezvous with her to collect it.

However the plan goes awry when Hanumma asks her friend to collect her bucket instead and as a result Qinawi stabs the friend repeatedly with a knife he had purchased previously for the purpose, before putting her body into another large crate which he then loads onto a waiting train, believing he has killed Hanumma.

From this point onwards, Qinawi's mental state begins to unravel as he is overcome with guilt and when he calmly states that he has married Hanumma to the news vendor at the kiosk, the news vendor's suspicions are raised and he rushes to Abu Siri to tell him of his concerns, something confirmed when Abu Siri discovers that Qinawi has loaded a crate instead of Hanumma's trunk.

The story reaches a climax as it turns out that the woman Qinawi attempted to kill has survived the attack and although suspicion falls on Abu Siri as the culprit when he is set up by the manager of the station porters, the news vendor's last minute intervention proves Qinawi's guilt, but not before Qinawi makes a second attempt on Hanumma's life and holds a knife to her throat at the dramatic climax as he is surrounded by police and station workers.

By now psychotic, Qinawi is persuaded by the news vendor to wear a "wedding suit" that turns out to be a strait jacket and he is carried away screaming as Hanumma looks on, carried by Abu Siri, her face registering relief, horror and pity.

The film is remarkable for not pulling punches regarding several complex subjects and issues and in that respect it's neo-realist credentials are clearly visible, and more importantly it handles them with a degree of sensitivity.

It is arguable that Hanumma is portrayed as a stereotypical temptress navigating a world of predatory men and that her behavior might provoke certain behavior but at the same time she is depicted as a woman who makes a choice in a way that may not have been available to a previous generation of women. And then there are the contradictions of cheesecake photographs of women in newspapers that may seem unusual for a Muslim society, but these details place the story very much in the era that the film was made - a period of great social change and where the status quo was being challenged by ideas from the West.

A definite must-see if, like me, you have been scanning Netflix and something that possibly suggests some broader content for the streaming service besides glossy episodic series, documentaries and first run feature films.

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