Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Fans of Egyptian popular cinema will always remember Youssef Chahine for directing Omar Sharif’s silver screen debut. For cineastes though, he is the auteur behind socially aware festival favorites, like Cairo Station. Completed by Khaled Youssef when ill-health forced Chahine to step down, Chaos (French trailer here) combines elements of his fêted issue films and the Egyptian melodramas that made Sharif a star. Screening tonight at the New York African Diaspora Film Festival’s Night in Egypt at Symphony Space, Chahine’s final film statement is in fact a harsh indictment of a corrupt Egyptian society.

Chaos begins and ends with a riot. In between, the crooked cop Hatem abuses his power and the general populace, extorting just about everyone he comes into contact with. After indiscriminately arresting people during the opening riot, the police are ordered by the new goody two-shoes DA to release all the accused. However, Hatem and his superiors have different plans for so-called troublemakers, illegally holding them incommunicado in a hidden basement cell.

Hatem, played with villainous gusto by Khaled Saleh, is not just venal, but also twisted in his personal life as well, stalking Nour, the pretty young school teacher living in his building. Of course, she is repulsed by the morally bankrupt policeman. The object of her unrequited love is the young DA, who happens to be the son of Nour’s headmistress. Unfortunately, he is engaged to a rich but shallow party girl, sort of an Egyptian Paris Hilton. When dealing with the romantic longings of its characters, Chaos approaches telenovela territory. However, back at the station house, the vibe is more Grand Guignol, with prisoners tortured in the dungeon as the prostitutes in the holding cell above put on a Bollywood-style show for the men watching through cracks in the wall.

Hatem acts with impunity, because his malfeasance amuses his superiors. Nour and her mother even seek help from the local Islamist party on the make. They promise big, but fail to deliver. Here Chahine seems to imply rampant public corruption in Egypt drives otherwise rational citizens to vote for radical Islamist parties. In a way, the film is so eager to indict Egyptian political corruption it lets the contemptible Hatem off the hook, as the product of sick society.

Somewhat uneven, Chaos is a big, angry morality play for the screen. It turns out Chahine had a particular talent for directing riot sequences. However, his attempts at popular melodrama at times feel a bit overwrought. While Chaos will probably not be considered one of the Chahine’s masterworks, it is certainly an interesting parting shot from the celebrated director. It screens tonight as part of the NYADFF, which continues through the weekend.