Netflix isn’t exactly known as a treasure trove of international art cinema history – in fact, it can be tough sometimes to find much at all from the previous century streaming on the service – which is why I was quite surprised to happen upon a dozen titles from Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, the boundary-breaking, bisexual provocateur whose career spanned more than 40 films from his 1950 debut to his death in 2004. The current collection includes Chahine’s 1954 breakthrough hit The Blazing Sun, which featured the first starring role for a handsome young actor named Omar Sharif, as well as the first three installments of the filmmaker’s autobiographical tetralogy, 1978’s Alexandria… Why?, 1982’s An Egyptian Story, and 1989’s Alexandria Again and Forever.
The best place to jump in is probably Chahine’s still-controversial 1958 masterpiece, Cairo Station. An electrifying mix of tortured expressionism and street-level neorealism, the film depicts the title destination as an unstable collision of uptight traditions and present-day decadence, throbbing along with the main character’s psychosis in a manner presaging films like Peeping Tom, Psycho and Taxi Driver. The director himself stars as Kenawi, an addled young street urchin with a bum leg taken in by a kindly old newsstand owner and given a job hawking papers at the bustling depot. It’s a chaotic, discombobulated place, with deafeningly loud locomotives chugging to and fro, amid all the hustlers, pickpockets and a crew of sexy, scantily clad gals dashing in and out of train cars, illegally selling soft drinks while evading the police.
The exploited station workers are attempting to unionize, led by heroic, barrel-chested Abu Serih (Farid Shawqi), much to the consternation of the local brass. These frames are as packed as in any Robert Altman picture, with groups like “Women Against Marriage” protesting in the background and crowded cabins full of musicians holding impromptu jams. A day at the station provides a panoramic view of an old civilization on the brink of a brave new world, but these newspapers being peddled are full of murder and other dismaying dangers. A trio of cranky clerics loudly bemoan what their country has become. “Curse be these modern idiocies,” they harumph. “All these new-fangled ideas lead straight to hell.”
They’re not entirely wrong, especially not in the case of Kenawi, who has plastered the shack in which he sleeps with bikini model cut-outs from girly magazines, frustrated and fixated on the station’s soft drink sellers. (He might be modern movies’ original incel. Eat your heart out, Joker.) Kenawi’s all hung up on Hanuma, an incorrigible flirt played by the absurdly attractive Hind Rostom, the Marilyn Monroe of Egyptian cinema. She’s engaged to the strapping Abu Serih, but sees Kenawi as a friendly plaything, teasing him and taking advantage of his eager assistance whenever convenient. There’s nothing overtly cruel about how Hanuma treats him. She’s actually quite fond of the little fellow, but even as he ardently proposes marriage the disabled boy’s attentions just don’t register to her that way. Nor does she notice the twitching behind his tiny, ferret eyes, even when Kenawi starts decapitating his paper cut-out girls.
The premiere of Cairo Station purportedly ended with an audience member spitting in the filmmaker’s face, and the picture wound up banned in Egypt for 20 years before being re-discovered by cinephiles in 1978. It remains a strikingly modern movie, keyed into the sick side-effects of repression and all the ways in which young men are conditioned to see women as possessions, like the magazine cut-outs in Kenawi’s collection. The cinematography switches between beautifully choreographed wide shots of clamoring crowds and our disturbed protagonist’s POV, In which tantalizing glimpses of fleshy thighs cut to close-ups of his beady, angsty eyes. At a pivotal moment Chahine allows Kenawi’s gaze to linger on the creaking of a worn-out railroad tie buckling under the pressure of an overloaded engine, the sight symbolizing his shaky psyche.
The movie comes to an ugly end with a train car grinding to a halt in front of a bloody altercation, the forces of forward progress literally stopped in their tracks by a culture’s psychosexual dysfunction. There’s nothing quaint or reassuring about Cairo Station. In fact, what’s maybe most disturbing is that it hasn’t aged a day.
“Cairo Station” is streaming on Netflix.