Alexandria is one of the fabled cities of history, the ancient jewel of Egypt, a cross roads for Mediterranean trade since boats could leave the sight of land.   Since I read Lawrence Durrell’s wonderful Alexandria Quartet,especially the opening novel,  Justine, I’ve had a spot reserved on my if-the-chance-comes-don’t-turn-it-down list. As I culled through movies by Egyptians about Egypt in the past few weeks, following the incredible youth and labor led revolt, Alexandria: Again and Forever (1989)by Youssef Chahine appeared. Ah!  Perhaps a chance to see it through a native’s eyes!

I wish I could report a wonderful movie, particularly because it does, in major ways, presage the events  of January 2011.  There is a strike.  A young woman declares herself to be in rebellion against the old ways, and ready to “be myself, as I really am.”  She is expressive, and bold and willing to argue her case with those above her in the social caste.  She wants freedom.

Unfortunately, as best I could read the movie itself, it was a mess.  The director, Chahine, plays himself, as a director, who having won the Silver Bear at Cannes some years earlier — as Chahine did– obsessively tries to repeat his triumph with another movie, and the same young actor.  The editing and dialog are such that we can’t tell whether long filmic sequences are of the actual past movie,or his dreams of another one.  At times the scenes are positively Felliniesque, with mad-cap racing around, some of it in fast motion.  Men, mostly, in Greek/Roman fighting togas, images of head rolling off into the bay.

It may be I was tired and not knitting this all together as well as a director has the right to expect of his viewers.  It may also be that there were cultural tropes I was missing — which is in part, why we watch films from other cultures, to begin to be able to read what is embedded and what is missing (as we think.) If so, I  was not getting them.  What was this mix of soft-shoe Gene Kelly soft shoe dancing with prancing among body parts of enormous statues, to Toga sword play?  Yes, we have an obligation to bring our interpretive intelligence to such movies but the director has also to ask himself — will this make sense to those seeing it for the first time?  Is the filmic syntax being used in a way that the mind will follow?  Does a fade or a cut to a different scene or set of characters make sense?

Others have commented (and here) on his own self obsession. Too bad because the theme of a director moving from soft romantic movies,  through a strike in solidarity with other creative types against an oppressive government and into the possibility of new, realistic films about people’s lives and the struggles they undertake, with a new female actor, epitomizing just that story, has plenty of potential.

Chahine himself is an interesting fellow, and much garlanded.  Among other things, he worked at the Pasadena Playhouse for a few years.  He is credited with launching Omar Sharif’s carreer and directed many films about the social problems of the day,  including Cairo Station (1958) and an epic 3 hours Saladin, with script honors shared with Naguib Mahfouz.

This is the third part of a trilogy, the first of which, Alexandria … Why? (1979) in fact won the Cannes Silver Bear. It’s on my list.  I hope it shows me more, and clarifies this one.  I’d like to come back with a strong recommendation.  It is the kind of movie I thought might inform my understanding of the young Egyptians who burst on the scene, seemingly so suddenly.  There had to be a coalescing of ideas and attitudes to let the spark find fuel. Alexandria may have been part of that but I have yet to be convinced.