Classic Musings: Cairo Station ('58)

A lusty drink peddler bats her eyelashes from within a sweaty crowd filled with song and music, right after giving a bottled soda to the man she's looking at. He, a mentally off-kilter newspaper seller, stands intently while eying her movements as she flirtingly dances around a train car, flowing with the music. He's entranced, hypnotized even; of course, this occurs after she's rejected his whimsical marriage proposal, one filled with promises of children, cows, and a shimmering necklace. She doesn't want him because he hasn't a penny to his name, but be damned if she won't continue stringing him along. Whether she knows that the man's mentally unbalanced becomes irrelevant, as it seems like she'd continue her thoughtless flirtation anyway. That's what femme fatales do, right?

Youssef Chahine's neo-noir drama Cairo Station roots in the hustle-'n-bustle around a train depot, one that houses a sexually-frustrated merchant named Qinawi who's fixated on a flippant temptress. Chahine himself plays the merchant, a shabby-looking letch with sloppily-clipped pinup girls tacked all over his shack of a living space. He lets his visual ogling linger longer than they should, shifting from woman to woman in the station until his Hanuma, played by Egyptian starlet Hind Rostom, finds her way in his eyesight. She's engaged, however, to a man leading an attempt to unionize the workers of the station, who also wishes for his bride-to-be to stay away from lowly beverage sales work. It's the attention she garners though, from men and the denizens of the station, that's her lifeblood.

From the opening monologue that outlines a finite demise for the protagonist, Cairo Station taps into influences for its stunning essence that range from classic noir to the likes of Vittorio de Sica (Bicycle Thieves) and Robert Bresson (Pickpocket). Close-ups focus on Qinawi eyes, oftentimes revealing what he's thinking -- of a scandalous nature -- in a way that nulls the necessity for any sort of heavy voiceover. Dark, gritty cinematography captures the Egyptian train station that he limps around in, bathed in shadows that give the space a captivating open-aired depth, while rhythmic scoring interchanges with traditional melodrama-heavy violins to craft an eerie demeanor. If nothing else, Youssef Chahine's film succeeds in capturing the Egypt locale in a thoroughly unique light, such as a one-sided marriage proposal with a statue of a pharaoh overlooking the stiff yet lusty discomfiture. It's a strikingly-shot film that captures every ounce of mood that Chahine intends to project, while confidently taking glance after glance at the characters' humanity in the process.

That's one of the primary reasons why Cairo Station wasn't a celebrated work in Egypt upon its release, even banned for some time: the vigorous and uncompromising way it presents Hanuma. She's a lush, pouty-lipped girl who unabashedly manipulates men with her physical allures; not a floozy, but a tease who obviously uses her sexual allure. Director Chahine doesn't shy away from capturing her in an entrancing light, either; several scenes where Qinawi stares at her show us exactly why he's fixated, as Hind Rostom's curvy magnetism gives off a steaminess that's still effective in the modern era. Along with that, Qinawi's frustration spiraling out of control due to the woman's manipulation -- clearly just frivolous contortion -- creates a stimulating atmosphere on its own as his urges grow darker upon his rejection. Chahine's not afraid to scrape the bottom of the barrel for its rawness, and it shows in the film's intensifying demeanor.

The main focus of Cairo Station becomes Qinawi's sanity, and where exactly -- for better or worse -- it'll take him. Some might associate the struggles that he has with Hanuma as a metaphor to the secondary plot involving the union of workers being persuaded to not form an alliance, but that connection's not meaty or compelling enough in implementation to really delve further. Instead, the bustle of their conflict heightens the desperate electricity in the atmosphere's air, in which Qinawi's desperation mushrooms into a contorted perception of his adulation for the drink peddler. Taken on that level, Youssef Chahine's work elevates to an incisively tense level, starting out as a moody drama and gradually roughing-up into a grounded, disquieting suspense hinged on a rejected man driven mad by his desire.

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