Dir: Youssef Chahine.Fr-Egypt. 2004. 128mins
During the past few years, veteran Egyptian directorYoussef Chahine has courted controversy with his comments relating to the 9/11terrorist attacks on America.
On-screen, Egypt,his contribution to the 11'09''01 - September 11 project portrayed anArab director being refused entry to New York, facing the ghosts of a dead GIand Palestinian, then launching into a long speech about US hypocrisy.Off-screen, Chahine claimed in French press interviews that the Americans hadbrought the attack upon themselves
With Alexandria' NewYork, he continues in a similar, if less controversial and more nostalgicvein, echoing the autobiographical themes of previous films in his Alexandriaseries. But despite many positives, including some great performances andstriking visuals, his latest work is overshadowed by Chahine's off-screenstatus.
In France, Alexandria'New York has had a fair response, as arthouse followers of the directorturned out to be charmed again. Appeal in the US is likely to be more limited,although anti-Bush audiences after a nostalgic look at America through foreigneyes may be intrigued - and possibly buy a copy of the soundtrack, whichincludes a great Arabian version of New York, New York. The film playsToronto next month.
Egyptian director Yehia(Mahmoud Hemeida, a character obviously based on Chahine) is invited to NewYork for a retrospective of his work. There he meets Ginger (Yousra), hisAmerican first love from his college days at UCLA decades earlier - whointroduces him to Alexander (Ahmed Yehia), a son he was previously unaware of.
The film then enters into aprolonged flashback, set in the late 1940s California, when a young Yehia (alsoplayed by Yehia) and Ginger (Yousra El Lozy) met at drama school. We then moveforward to 1970s New York, where they enjoy a one-night stand - and Alexanderis conceived.
Back in the present, Yehiais prepared to welcome Alexander into his life, but is met only with arrogance,violence, incomprehension and rejection from a young man who cannot accept thathe is half Arab. It ends with Yehia wandering the grey streets of New York,pondering on how America has drifted from Fred Astaire to modern day actionheroes.
One great idea behind Alexandria'New York is to stage the scenes from Hollywood's golden era in Arabic inthe studios of Cairo. These dance numbers not only carry a distinct Arab vibe,but also send the message that what America cannot now do can easily beresurrected in an Arab capital. As a result, Chahine's homage to the lostAmerican art of creating beauty with light and sound on the heaviest artificialsets proves both sincere and truly moving.
But they are not as moving,so far as the young Yehia is concerned, as his vision of an American woman, whosesplendour and open sex-appeal - as embodied in American actresses - are aStatue Of Liberty.
One of Chahine's strongpoints in his recent work has been how he draws charming performances fromupcoming actors and actresses, as seen with Rubi in Silence... On Tourne.Here, Yousra El Lozy, as a young Ginger, puts all her talent and graceful youthinto Yehia's fantasy of the American female, while Ahmed Yehia who plays ayoung Yehia as well as Yehia's son, is similarly a standout.
Alexandria' New York falls short, however,in its portrayal of contemporary America. Chahine is obviously attempting tocontrast Yehia's halcyon days in California with the hard off-screen world thatexists today. But when the story returns to the present, Chahine heavily repeatswhat has been suggested elsewhere in a far more subtle way.
Chahine's films usuallycarry a fair dose of humour. Here the only character he is unable to laughabout is his own screen double, in contrast to directors like Nanni Moretti whoalso present loose representations of themselves in their work.
It proves a major weakness when the allusions are soapparent and central to the film: Chahine by Chahine is a gifted director, agreat lover, a great friend, a great son, a great dancer, a great actor - in facta perfect man who America is unable to love.
Prod cos: Ongon, MSR Int'l
Int'l sales: Flach Pyramide
Fr dist: Pyramid
Prods: Humbert Balsan, MarianneKhoury, Gabriel Khoury
Scr: Chahine, Khaled Youssef
Cine: Ramses Marzouk
Prod des: Hamed Hemdan
Ed: Rachida Abdel Salam
Mus: Yehia El Mougy
Main cast: Mahmoud Hemeida,Yousra, Ahmed yehia, Yousra El Lozy, Lebleba