By: T.J. “I saw a miserable boy lying in the street” Mulligan
Watching foreign films can be a wholly unique cinematic experience. They can whisk you away to places you’ve never seen or maybe even heard of, giving you a glimpse into a world you know nothing about. For many, that factor is the one that ultimately leads to their decision to watch it or not: do you stay with the familiar traditions of Hollywood or venture forward into something you’ve possible never witnessed before in your life? Though these aspects are part of the uniqueness and, for someone like me, part of the charm, many foreign films do not possess a feel that is all together “foreign.” The popularity of traditional Hollywood styles of filmmaking has historically influenced filmmakers worldwide, leading to them adapting these styles, melding them with aspects of their country’s own culture. Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station, a 1958 film from Egypt, has this approach to filmmaking prominently on display.
Cairo Station is the story of Qinawi (Chahine), a slightly crippled employee of a paper salesman at a train station in Cairo. Qinawi keeps mainly to himself, romantically pining for a member of a group of women who illegally sell refreshments at the station, Hannuma (Hind Rostom). Qinawi’s desires are known by almost everyone who works in and around the station, including Hannuma, who often takes advantage of Qinawi’s feelings, and her fiance Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi), a proud station worker who often clashes with management and dreams of unionizing his fellow employees. Over the course of one day Qinawi’s adoration goes from distant, innocent affection to close, desperate obsession after Hannuma turns down Qinawi’s offer to run away together. Qinawi’s increasingly possessive infatuation leads him to actions he can’t take back and down a path from which there is no return.
The main thought that kept repeating in my head the entire time I watched Cairo Station was “this is a film Hitchcock would make if he were Egyptian.” the mixture of violence, sexuality and classical elements of the thriller have obvious Hitchcockian roots, and Chahine does pull it off well, though naturally not as good at the master. Additionally, the influences of film noir and classic love stories are present throughout the film, most prevalent in a subplot witnessed by Qinawi of a young woman waiting at the station for her lover, who seemingly arrives with his wife and must sneak away and hide with her before showering her with his true affections. These actions are accompanied by a sweepingly romantic score like they were Bogart and Bacall.
Chahine’s shooting style seems to mirror that of Hollywood as well, transitioning between the uncomfortably close and the staggeringly distant, adding to the emotional impact of any given scene. The only problem with all of these conventions converging in one film is that it never truly feels solidly in place. Though it feels like Chahine has a good grip on many different styles of filmmaking, it never feels as though he completely has a grip on making an entire film that flows just right. No one part falls entirely flat, but no one part feels exceedingly unique either (aside from an implied sex scene using a passing train that is beautifully constructed). Chahine is discernibly a fan of many different classical film forms but, as the saying goes, sometimes less is more.
I give Cairo Station 3 sets of creeper eyes out of 5.