Renowned Egyptian director Chahine dies

Filmmaker explored sexuality, fundamentalism

CAIRO, Egypt -- Youssef Chahine, one of Egypt's most lauded movie directors whose films over nearly five decades often went on Fellini-esque flights of fancy and tackled social ills and Islamic fundamentalism, died Sunday in Cairo. He was 82 years old.

His death comes about four weeks after he fell into a coma following a brain hemorrhage. Chahine was flown to France in critical condition for treatment but later sent back to Al Maadi Military Hospital in Cairo, where he died Sunday, according to Egypt's official new agency, MENA.

Chahine's eclectic work made him one of the few Egyptian directors to gain an audience abroad, particularly in Europe and France, where he won a lifetime achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement Sunday calling Chahine one of cinema's "most celebrated servants" and "a fervent defender of freedom of expression."

"Youssef Chahine sought throughout his life to denounce, through images, censure, fanaticism and fundamentalism," Sarkozy said.

At home, his films raised controversy for their frank portrayal of sexuality, their sharp criticism of political oppression and, in his later works, their denunciations of rising Islamic extremism in Egypt.

In 1994, a fundamentalist lawyer succeeded in getting a court to ban his film "The Emigrant" because its plot was based on the story of Joseph, found in the Bible and Quran. Most interpretations of Islam ban the depiction of prophets.

Chahine was born on Jan. 25, 1926 to a Christian family of Lebanese origin in Alexandria, the Mediterranean port known at the time as a cosmopolitan city, with large European and other foreign communities. Throughout his more than 40 films and documentaries, Chahine sought to recapture and defend the spirit of multicultural tolerance against the forces he saw undermining it -- fundamentalism, dictatorship and imperialism.

Chahine grew up speaking French and English better than Arabic, and many of his films were French co-productions, bringing criticism by some at home that he was not Arab -- or Egyptian -- enough. But his early films became classics of social realism, giving gritty depictions of the lowest in Egyptian society. In his 1958 "Cairo Station," Chahine himself starred as Qenawi, a mentally retarded newspaper seller at Cairo's main railroad station, who becomes obsessed with a woman selling lemonade.

"The Land" in 1969, seen by some as his greatest film, told an epic story of peasant farmers and landowners struggling over land in the Nile Delta.

In his Alexandria Trilogy -- "Alexandria, Why?", "An Egyptian Story," and "Alexandria Again and Forever" -- Chahine turned autobiographical, recounting his childhood in his hometown, his love of Hollywood and his ambiguous feeling toward the United States, which he was drawn to but also saw as an overweening power. The 1978 "Alexandria, Why?" has a scene of the Statue of Liberty giving a sneering laugh at immigrants arriving in America.

"I have a problem with America, you can call it a dilemma," Chahine -- who studied acting for two years at Pasadena Playhouse in California in the 1940s -- once told an interviewer. "I used to love it very much, I studied there, my first love was there ... I don't hate America as some think ... but it is difficult to sympathize with it."

The trilogy broke with the realist style, bringing in wild scenes of fantasy, musical numbers and surrealism that drew comparisons with Italian director Frederico Fellini. "Alexandria, Why?" also raised eyebrows by telling the story of two taboo love affairs -- one homosexual between an Egyptian man and a British solider, the other between a Muslim man and a Jewish woman.

His later films tackled Islamic conservativism. After the banning of "The Emigrant," Chahine responded with the historical film "Destiny," about the 12th Century Muslim philosopher Averroes, whose books were banned by extremists in the Islamic kingdom of Andalus in what is now Spain.

His last movie, 2007's "This is Chaos" -- co-directed with his protege Khaled Youssef -- was a sharp criticism of the Egyptian government's crackdown on democracy activists, depicting a corrupt police officer who takes bribes and tortures his detainees.
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