Alexandria... Why? (Youssef Chahine / Egypt-Algeria, 1978):
(Iskandereiya... Leh?; Alexandria... Pourquoi?)

Black-and-white stock footage of Rommel's desert advance mixes with Esther Williams' Technicolor pirouettes for a razzmatazz opening montage -- German forces swear "Alexandria, you're mine," but the city is Youssef Chahine's from the start, as fervidly distinctive as Fellini's Rome. Mohsen Mohieddin is the director's teenaged stand-in, avidly daydreaming MGM extravaganzas to block out family drama and wartime trauma; his extended clan hangs on to a fašade of elegance while living on top of a rowdy cabaret lounge, curfews and blackouts punctuate the raucous burlesque, no argument is too tiny for garrulous tidal waves. The young hero performs Shakespeare and yearns for Hollywood, stages mock-glamorous musical revues and arranges impudent skit shows. He celebrates and suffers with the same ardor, but Alexandria is a veritable mural of saturated passions: the approaching Nazis are viewed as a welcome change in oppressor ("Hitler will turn you into belly-dancers," a local says to the occupying British), Egyptian nationalists hatch a wacky plot to sink Churchill's submarine, British soldiers become the main article of contraband, trafficked among rebels for assassination potential. Mohieddin's rich uncle buys a young Brit (Gerry Sundquist) and falls in love with him, though "patriotic" bloodlust keeps their forbidden affair from being consummated; a Muslim Communist (Ahmed Zaki) and his Jewish squeeze (Naglaa Fathi) are more successful in bridging the various frantic tensions, even as her aged father prophesizes both Israel and American military interference to "protect the oil." An air raid kills the lights, the handheld shot as the old grandfather shuffles through the darkened living room (illuminated by the bomb blasts outside) follows into a disarming, kitschy panorama of animated search lights -- Chahine's pop diorama of memory. Examining identity both personal and cultural, the filmmaker lends his own early home movies to the writhing fabric, and directs the final laugh at himself, an eager alter-ego crossing the Atlantic to be greeted by a chortling Lady Liberty. With Ezzat El Alaili, Mahmoud El Meligui, Mohsena Tewfik, Abdalla Mahmoud, and Seif El Dine.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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