Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Bab el hadid / Gare Centrale / Central Station

Keskusasema. EG 1958. P: Gabriel Talhami. D: Youssef Chahine. SC: Abdel Hay Adib – dialogue: Mohamed Abu Youssef. DP: Alevise Orfanelli – black and white – 1,37:1. AD: Gabriel Karraze (art dir.), Abbas Helmy (set dec.). Makeup: Sayed Mohamed, Hamdi Rafaat. M: Fouad El-Zahry. S: Aziz Fadel. ED: Kamal Abul Ela. C: Youssef Chahine (Kenaoui / Qinawi), Hind Rostom (Hanuma), Farid Shawqi (Abou Serib), Has-san el Baroudi, Abdel Ghani Nagdi, Abdel Aziz Kha-lil, Naima Wasfy, Said Khalil. Loc: Cairo (Egypt). In Arabic. Tv transmissions in Finland: YLE Teema 21.10.2007, 7.6.2009. Sources give different durations: 95 min, 90 min, 77 min. The 77 min version played back at 25 fps from a digibeta (the best format available) from Pyramide, opening credits written in Arabic and English, sous-titres français par Frédéric Benaoui, e-subtitles in Finnish by Lena Talvio, viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (The Train In the Cinema), 6 Nov 2012.

The Cairo Central Station is the milieu of criss-crossing destinies among refreshment and newspaper sellers and porters, some of whom are working without permit and constantly hiding from the police, while there is a rising awareness of the need of getting organized into trade unions. There are idlers and hangers-on, too, on the scene.

The story is full of life in the same way as the first neorealistic movies by Roberto Rossellini. The milieux, clothes and life circumstances seem real and true to life, but this is also a movie about dreams and passions, conveyed in terms of melodrama and crime fiction. There is a dance sequence to Egyptian-flavoured contemporary pop music, and the sexually frustrated Kenaoui covers his walls with images of buxom pin-up girls. Coca-Cola is among the beverages sold to great demand in the sultry central station. In the same way as the original Italian neorealistic movies Bab el hadid is a movie about life in poverty, but most importantly, it is about an irrepressible life-force that has the potential to transcend any hardship. No miserabilism here.

The teeming life on a railway station has never been more vividly conveyed. The crowds are enormous, the trains are constantly on the move, the work of the porters is hard, and one porter's hand is badly injured. Women sell refreshments illegally and are constantly on the run when policemen appear. There are also instances of danger and last-minute rescues from approaching trains in situations even involving children.

The railway station is a site of modernity, mobility, urbanity, rootlessness and alienation. These people have emerged from the countryside not too long ago. Close-ups of rails, gears, pistons and wheels, and sounds of steam trains acquire psychological and symbolic meanings. They function as expressions of Kenaoui's deranged state of mind.

The women are full of temperament and vitality, even vulgarity, and there is a sexy sequence where they drench each other with a big water hose. There is also a sequence about an Anti-Marriage Society For Women with the slogan "Marriage Is A Device Of Oppression".

Boldly, the director Youssef Chahine himself plays the main role of the madman of the station, Kenaoui, always wearing a torn wool cap. He limps, and he is seriously unbalanced, fantasizing about the voluptuous Hanuma, and deciding to stab her to death; instead he almost manages to murder another woman, Hallawetumi. In the conclusion, Kenaoui is deported from the station in a strait-jacket after another attempt to stab Hanuma with his knife. Kenaoui is a pitiful character, "a kind word may soften him, an evil deed may make him a murderer".

There is vitality also in the cinematography. There are vigorous camera movements, brisk instances of cutting, an exciting use of deep focus, and extreme close-ups of glowing eyes.

The digibeta was the best that was available for our screening. Produced from a flawless and scratchless source it conveys the visual outline and composition very well, but fine detail is missing from the video look of Digital Betacam.

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