For decades, at film festivals, Egyptian director Youssef Chahine (1926–2008) was the prime representative of an entire continent, Africa, and a world religion, Islam — though his family was Christian and his ancestors came from Greece and Lebanon. Both a nationalist and an internationalist, Chahine loved Hollywood movies (as a young man he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse) and learned as much from their robust pace as he did from the gritty humanism of Italian neorealist films and the romantic sweep of Indian cinema in its postwar golden age.
Chahine’s near masterpiece Alexandria …Why?, the first of his Alexandria quartet of films, is set in Egypt during World War II, when Arab nationalists were killing English soldiers — anything to get the British empire out of Palestine. But this sprawling epic is mainly the story of a young man, transparently Chahine himself, who loves Shakespeare and American movies. At the end, he sails into New York Harbor as Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” plays on the soundtrack. Below him are some Hasidic Jews; above is the Statue of Liberty, which has morphed into a heavyset actress he knew back home and is exploding in a ribald laugh. The collision of world cultures was rarely defined with such brio.
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