MOVIE REVIEW : A Tumultuous Egyptian Autobiography

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Youssef Chahine's sprawling, impassioned autobiographical "Egyptian Trilogy" (Nuart) confirms once and for all its maker's status as a world-class writer-director whose work in America has heretofore been seen only at film festivals and archives despite garnering international prizes over the last four decades.

A born screen storyteller, Chahine is a highly accessible, emotion-charged filmmaker given to bravura flourishes. If his ego is vast, he has a talent to match it and is harder on himself than anyone else.

As confessional cinema, Chahine's trilogy brings to mind the autobiographical films of Federico Fellini, the director in the West whom Chahine most resembles in style as well as concerns. "Alexandria . . . Why?" (1978), "Egyptian Story" (1982) and "Alexandria Again and Forever" (1990) unfold over a tumultuous half-century as a great arc, charting Chahine's youthful dreams, midlife crisis and a mature sense of self-acceptance and reconciliation.

When we first meet his alter ego Yehia (Naglaa Fathi) in 1942, he is in an Alexandria prep school his refined but impoverished family can ill-afford. He is a handsome dreamer, loving Hollywood, and pining to be both Gene Kelly and Laurence Olivier. Why, of all places, did he have to be born in Alexandria, he wonders in frustration.

In all three films, Chahine depicts Yehia as continually needing to break out of his self-absorption, yet Chahine himself paradoxically is acutely aware of the world around him--what is happening in the lives of Yehia's family and friends as well as his country. There is in "Alexandria . . . Why?," for example, a poignant secondary story about his gay uncle and his love for a young British soldier.

By the time of "Egyptian Story," set in the '50s and '60s, Yehia (now played by Nour El Sherif) is emerging as a top director in his own country but hungering for international recognition as intensely as he craved going to Pasadena. When the now silver-haired, hard-driving, chain-smoking Yehia requires open-heart surgery, Chahine envisions his alter ego's heart chamber as a courtroom in which Yehia the child is metaphorically put on trial for clogging the arteries of Yehia the man.

"Egyptian Story" is at times hard-going, with Yehia thrashing about in his struggle to grow up at last. Interestingly--and appropriately--Yehia views his parents, especially his mother, in three dimensions in contrast to their idealized personae in the first film.

With the reflective "Alexandria Again and Forever" Chahine, who has just turned 65, now plays Yehia, a small, wiry man of much volatility and charm. Joining a film industry strike against repressive government measures, he meets a beautiful and talented young actress who forces him to look at himself in a final act of self-acceptance, relinquishing his obsessive need to fulfill his youthful acting dreams through an unhappy protege. Chahine's vital, reflective and absorbing saga (Times-rated Mature for adult themes, complex style) comes full circle as he imagines filming a spectacle about Alexander the Great, accepting that his destiny has always been and always will be connected with his birthplace: Alexandria.

"Alexandria . . . Why" and "Egyptian Story" screen today and Saturday only; "Alexandria Again and Forever" screens Sunday through Thursday.

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