Dir: Youssef Chahine France/Egypt 2007. 122 mins
Veteran Egyptian director Youssef Chahine serves up a stirring, old-fashioned melodrama with a liberal conscience in his latest film, co-directed with his younger colleague Khaled Youssef. As imbued with the sounds, colours and passions of Cairo as a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, the film is a plea for democratic process and the rule of law in a country where neither can be taken for granted. But with a soap-like love story at its core, this is also one of Chahine's most populist films since Cairo Station, the title that put him on the world cinema map in far-off 1958 (though Chaos is much more conventional in its visual style than that tour de force of montage).

At the age of 81, Chahine is used to pushing back the boundaries of what can be shown in Egyptian cinema: he was dealing with the taboo theme of homosexuality well before its recent airing in big-budget production The Yacoubian Building. In Chaos, his target is the erosion of civil liberties and the rise of corruption and interethnic strife in a once tolerant district of Cairo; but his denunciation of police brutality and malpractice is circumscribed by being attributed largely to one bad-apple cop - a likeable, humanised villain played with tremendous gusto by Khaled Saleh.

Pegged for a spring 2008 release in
Egypt, the film is unlikely to have problems with the censors, though with its rape scene, depictions of mild drug use and anti-fundamentalist sideswipes it may run into difficulties in other Arab territories. Overseas, outside of the co-production territory of France, where arthouse distributor Tadrart plans to release the film in December,Chaos is likely to play mostly to festivals and Egyptian diaspora communities.

Set in the populous, multi-ethnic Cairo suburb of Shoubra, the film focuses on Hatem (Khaled Saleh), a corrupt (but jovial) cop who rules the neighbourhood like a Mafia boss with a mixture of threats and Mr-Fix-It solutions to people's problems - for which he pockets backhanders. He also indulges in a little recreational torture of the political dissidents who are kept in the basement of the local police station - despite an order freeing them signed by handsome, idealistic young district attorney Sherif (Youssef El Sherif). Hatem is also in conflict with Sherif over Nour (Mena Shalaby), a pretty young former student of Sherif's schoolteacher mother, who Hatem lusts after, but who only has eyes for the initially unresponsive Sherif.

Perhaps only in an Egyptian film could a man fall in love with a woman because his mother encourages him to - but this is what Sherif does, dumping his pot-smoking, tattoo-wearing girlfriend Sylvia (an overloaded symbol of Western decadence) in favour of chaste, blushing Nour. Their engagement enrages the increasingly desperate Hatem, who decides to abduct Nour and force her to be his.

Despite its serious subject matter, Chaos never gets too heavy. The Sherif-Nour love story is positively Bollywood in its reliance on smouldering glances and sweet words, Hatem himself is as much clown as villain, prostitutes do little dance numbers,and even the torture scenes have a theatrical feel. The film is peppered with ironic references to a growing climate of fundamentalism, mentioning the fact that couples can be imprisoned for three months for embracing in a public place,and that women's skirts have got longer rather than shorter in the last couple decades; it also shows a narrow-minded Islamic party organiser who promises Nour and her mother that 'your vote for us is your road to paradise'.

Shot traditionally as a colourful fresco of Cairo life, and scored with a mix of classical orchestral mood music and Egyptian jazz melodies, Chaos is in the end a goodies versus baddies drama with a soft romantic heart rather than a fiery piece of agit-prop cinema - but it's no less enjoyable for that, once you take its stock characters on board.

Youssef Chahine
Khaled Youssef

Production companies
Misr International Films (EGYPT)

3B Productions (FR)
Sunnyland Film (FR)
France 2 Cinema (FR)

International sales
Pyramide International (FR)

Gabriel Khoury

Rachid Bouchareb
Jean Brehat
Muriel Merlin

Nasser Abdel Rahman

Ramsis Marzouk

Production design
Hamed Hemdan

Ghada Ezzedine

Yasser Abdel Rahman

Main cast
Khaled Saleh
Mena Shalaby
Youssef El Sherif
Hala Sedky
Hala Fakher