In addition to directing it, Chahine played the most important - and least attractive - character, a lame newspaper vendor whose obsession with a coquettish woman leads to tragedy for all concerned. In his semiautobiographical 1982 film An Egyptian Story, Chahine suggests that his admirers expected him to win the accolade for best actor at the Berlin Film Festival, where Cairo Station had its world premiere - but he claims that he lost because his portrayal of a physically, mentally, and morally deficient man was so ultra-realistic that jurors confused the actor with the character he was portraying!
All the action of Cairo Station happens in the place named in the title - a sprawling, bustling depot in the Egyptian capital, where crowds of travelers and tourists jostle against shopkeepers and hawkers, some of whom live on the premises, squirreling themselves away in vacant nooks and corners. One such merchant is the newsagent Madbouli, who introduces the story, telling how he stumbled on a disabled and despairing young man named Qinawi and decided to help him earn a little money by peddling papers. He had second thoughts when he saw how Qinawi lived, plastering the walls of his dank little shed with cutout images of sexually alluring women.
The plot grows darker when Qinawi sees a lemonade vendor named Hanuma and becomes fixated on her flashy good looks and frisky personality. Hanuma is in love with Abu Serih, a burly luggage handler who's trying to form a union for the station workers. But she's such a flirt that she can't help toying with Qinawi's affections, leading him on without realizing what dangerous passions she's stirring up. Then a horrifying murder is discovered, with a mutilated corpse stuffed into a trunk. This awful event infiltrates Qinawi's morbid imagination, sparking an evil scheme to kill Hanuma in the same way. Buying a cheap knife, he makes his attack. But things go wrong in a multitude of ways, bringing about confusions and upheavals that affect nearly everyone in the station.
Suspense, romance, and high emotion are essential ingredients in Cairo Station, but for Chahine the melodramatic elements were secondary to the serious message he wanted to convey. The picture was meant to "discuss social reality through a personal prism," he told the Egyptian critic Samir Farid, and he was devastated when audiences refused to accept it. "The film failed miserably on first release," Chahine recalled later: "on the opening night one member of the audience came up to me afterwards and spat in my face....I exerted efforts to make this film [unlike] any of my previous films. My disappointment at its failure was such that for a while I returned to commercial cinema." Cairo Station received very limited distribution over the next two decades, although later audiences have been far more sensitive to its merits.
Chahine had an unusual career. Born in Alexandria to a Christian family, he moved to California as a college student, studying film and theater at the Pasadena Playhouse for two years before returning to Egypt and entering the film industry there. His second feature, Son of the Nile (1951), earned a coveted invitation to the Cannes International Film Festival, as did many of his subsequent pictures, including The Blazing Sun, the 1954 romantic drama that gave Omar Sharif his first movie role. When the 82-year-old filmmaker died in 2008 he had directed almost fifty features, documentaries, and shorts. His style was eclectic, influenced by everything from Hollywood musicals and horror movies to film noir and Italian neorealism. The great neorealist directors inspired him in much the same way they inspired the great Indian auteur Satyajit Ray, who made his exquisite Apu Trilogy around the same time Chahine was making Cairo Station. Cairo Station is both a gripping love-triangle drama and a prescient allegory of the challenges faced by Egypt, a religious and linguistic melting pot with a complicated culture, under the various autocrats who have ruled it. Here as in his other films, Chahine's strategy was to use all the resources of popular entertainment as entryways to complex and serious issues. "You can't be an artist," he once said, "if you don't know the social, the political and the [economic] context....Either you are with modernity or you don't know what the hell you're doing."
Chahine was modern to his bones, and he outspokenly opposed the many forms of repression, corruption, and censorship imposed on his country by rulers and politicians. The most politically explicit aspect of Cairo Station is Abu Serih's campaign to unionize the local workers, but a parallel message also comes through the sheer turbulence and feverishness of the environment, which persists throughout the movie and verges on chaos at times - a chaos that's brilliantly choreographed for the camera, both harrowing and breathtaking to watch. Chahine saw much that was chaotic in the country he loved, and it's no coincidence that his last film was a 2007 crime-and-corruption drama titled This Is Chaos.
Commenting on Chahine's achievements not long after his death, the Harvard Film Archive placed Cairo Station among "the decisive turning points in [his] long career," marked by "visual daring and embrace of ambitious and controversial subject matter." Seen in the light of Egypt's recent outbursts of violence and oppression, the film is as immediate and relevant in the twenty-first century as when it was new. This bears out the timelessness of Chahine's cinema and the battles he steadfastly fought. "All my projects are high risk, and I fight like mad," he told an interviewer from The International Herald Tribune in 1997. "I spend 80 percent of my time on politics, 20 percent making movies. Raising money is politics; every penny I make goes back into cinema." Cairo Station gives a vivid view of an early stop on his amazing journey.
Director: Youssef Chahine
Producer: Gabriel Talhami
Screenplay: Abdel Hai Adib; dialogue by Mohamed Abu Youssef
Film Editing: Kamal Abul Ela
Art Direction: Gabriel Karraze
Music: Fouad El Zahiri
With: Hind Rostom (Hanuma), Farid Chawki (Abu Serih), Youssef Chahine (Qinawi)
by David Sterritt