“Suffering has its charms”
Youssef Chahine’s Egyptian drama film Alexandria Again and Forever (1989) is the third and final entry in a trilogy of films, presenting a look-back at the director’s career. It was preceded by Alexandria…Why? (1978) and An Egyptian Story (1982), with each film putting a particular time in the director’s life under the microscope.
After a lot of friction and many tumultuous conversations with his favourite actor Amr (Amr Abdulgalil), famous film director Yehia (Youssef Chahine) is forced to scrutinise his career and life choices in the midst of the Egyptian film industry’s hunger strike. There, he meets his new muse Nadia (Youssra), who forces him to face his inner demons.
The film’s artistic cinematography, pace and dream-like ambience enrich the viewing experience, which dips into the stylistic fusion of a theatrical play and a feature film. In fact, the film is oftentimes conceptual enough to leave us scratching our heads, incorporating theatrical scenes involving music and dance to convey the characters’ unspoken thoughts and undefined feelings.
The expression of anguish – or desire – is jerked out of the men’s stubborn minds through dance, and the occasional fight scene. That is perhaps because at the heart of the film lies an unthinkable topic in the Arab world.
Yehia’s universe revolves around his mounting obsession with Amr. We see slowed-down, focused shots that aim to build emotion and suspense. The subtlety of these scenes has us holding our breaths, leaving us dangling between impropriety and hopeless devotion. This purgatory is stretched to envelop the world of Hamlet, using Amr as a means of reinterpreting the famous line “to be, or not to be”. Yehia mouths the words along with Amr, acting out his anguish by proxy. The heartache and maddening frustration this builds leads to severed ties and half-lived lives, forever boiled down to shy hand-holding and forlorn gazes.
The juxtaposition of the external world, along with its woes, and Yehia’s mind-tugging reflections on the moments spent with Amr is conveyed through surreal symbolism. Aside from building an artistic vision that is difficult to follow at times, this maneuver seems crucial to the film’s cnception.
To be able to start a conversation for which there are no words, the film had to be abstract enough to protect its emotional underbelly. The average person, unsuspecting of the truths behind merging genres and elongated shots of face-carving frowns, would be left confused. That is probably how it managed to sneak out onto the international scene, presenting a much softer side to an often ostentatious topic.