Destiny (Al-Massir, 1997)

Director: Youssef Chahine

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Last week, Egyptian director Youssef Chahine died at the age of 82. I’m sorry to say that until the moment I read the obituary, I had never heard of this director. Once I saw his film output listed on IMDb, I felt ashamed that the only accomplishment of his I could identify with was that he gave Omar Sharif his break in movies. Fortunately for me, other cultural institutions in my town were not so blind to Chahine and his legacy. I was able to score four of his films at my local library—his Alexandria trilogy (Alexandria… Why?, An Egyptian Story, and Alexandria Again and Forever) and the film under consideration here, Destiny. Having viewed some of the trilogy made 20 years before Destiny, I’m interested in the consistency of his viewpoint. He tells stories in a somewhat disjointed, episodic manner in which various story elements have tenuous links to each other. He has a strong concern for politics—though the villains change over the years, oppression is always the enemy. Finally, he never forgets that audiences want to be entertained while they are being enlightened. And like other Christians and Muslims working under heavy censorship in Egypt—most famously Nobel Literature Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, who is represented by the character of Averroes in this film—he tells his story indirectly.

The film opens dramatically in a 12th century French village, as a man in chains is dragged behind a horse to be burned at the stake as a heretic. He is a Muslim from Andalusia who has translated the works of the philosopher Averroes (Nour El-Sherif), who believes scripture is not the literal word of God, but is a text open to interpretation. The condemned man spots his wife and son Joseph (Faris Rahoma) in the crowds that have gathered in the square to watch him burn. He tells them to run as the flames rise from the ignited wood piles beneath him. As we watch him turn to a blackened skeleton, Youssef vows to carry on his father’s work.

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The scene shifts to the Andalusian town of Cordoba, where we will meet up with Youssef again. He returns to the house of Averroes, where he is welcomed by the philosopher and his wife (Safia El-Emari) as the prodigal son returned. You might think Youssef will be at center stage, but indeed he is a fairly minor character throughout the film. This introduction has the air of introducing Western cultures to Middle Eastern thought (or something to do with the French financing of the film). Averroes is the center of the compass, the point all directions of Muslim thought—both friendly and hostile—touch.

After Averroes has held forth, like Socrates, for a group of students, the men disperse. One student admires Averroes’ intellect, while the other worries about the opposing forces at work that would silence the philosopher. Religious fundamentalists led by a charismatic emir (Magdi Idris) and secretly backed by the wealthiest man in the kingdom, Sheik Riad (Ahmed Fouad Selim), have started to make trouble.

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Averroes is a confidante of the Caliph El-Mansour (Mahmoud Hemida), a proud man blind to the unrest in his kingdom. His eldest son, Crown Prince Nasser (Khaled El Nabawy), prefers to avoid the palace to spend time with Averroes. His younger son Borhan (Abdalla Mahmoud) loves to dance, and spends most of his time singing and dancing with a family of gypsies led by troubadour Marwan (Mohamed Mounir) and his daughter Manuela (Laila Eloui). One night, Borhan gets drunk and sings his poetry to a couple of men, who fawn over his brilliance. Soon they have recruited him to join the emir’s sect and instructed him on how to kill his own father.

Borhan’s symbolic father, Marwan, is also the object of a fatwa. One night, as he walks and sings down an empty street, he is attacked and stabbed in the neck by two followers of the emir for the crime of singing. He survives the attack, his vocal chords intact, but strives to free Borhan from the clutches of the emir. In an elaborate plan, exciting in its execution, Marwan rides into the sect’s camp and kidnaps Borhan; at his home, Marwan begins the task of deprogramming Borhan.

Averroes isn’t faring too well himself as he learns that his work is to be suppressed. Joseph takes the precaution of hiding Averroes’ most important works in a barrel of flour. Averroes’ house is set on fire one night, and the philosopher despairs of his lost work; it is then that Joseph reveals that they are safe in the flour. Every friend Averroes has works around the clock to write out copies of his books to save them for posterity. Joseph carries a set off to France, but loses them when he falls in a river. Riad finds the volumes downstream and persuades the Caliph to burn the books and banish Averroes. As Averroes watches his words going up in flames, he learns that Nasser has spirited the volumes safely to Egypt. Strengthened by the gravity of events in his kingdom, Nasser becomes the kind of Crown Prince his father always wanted, and the emir and his money man are undone. Borhan returns to himself, saying that the emir got to his head, but never his heart. The film ends with the word “Ideas have wings; they fly like birds.”

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This film isn’t subtle with its message and its assertion that it is the artists and outcasts who “love life” and whose ideas must survive. Two or three musical interludes performed by the gypsies that owe a lot to Bollywood are entertaining, but also carry the message of freedom in the poetic tradition of Islam:

Raise your voice, Sing,
Songs are still possible/available,
And we still have much to live,
If one day you break down,
You must get up,
Stand up like a palm tree looking at the sky,
No retreat, no defeat, no fear…

The methods of sect recruitment are interesting to watch and painful to realize—Borhan, a cheerful and peace-loving boy, becomes a slogan-spouting automaton, ready to kill for the cause. It is interesting that music breaks the sect’s spell on Borhan, not the precious ideas of Averroes. This is rather a contradiction that Chahine sees no need to reconcile. In fact, Marwan dies, happily, in the cause of freedom. Chahine owes his allegiance first to Art, then to progressive ideas.

To what does the title Destiny refer? At the beginning of the film, it seemed as though it would refer to Joseph and whatever role he would play in carrying on his father’s work. But as events unfold, Joseph fails to save the books. It is, in fact, the destiny of the ideas this film conveys—again, indirectly communicated as Averroes’ work and Marwan’s artistry—that concern Chahine. This film isn’t a slick Hollywood production, but it has all the elements of a well-constructed film of beauty and ideas. Belated as it was, I’m glad to have found Youssef Chahine.

  • Fox spoke:
    4th/08/2008 to 11:30 pm

    This is timely… I was watching that Israeli movie The Band’s Visit last night and one of the actresses mentions how when she was a kid she loved Egyptian movies.
    I kinda blacked out and was like … “Egyptian movies… Egyptian movies…. ????? I can’t think of one!!” It was frustrating.
    Anyway, I’ve told you this before, but this is why I love your blog. It digs down to pop up lost treasures and unknowns.
    Well done, Marilyn! 🙂

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/08/2008 to 7:56 am

    Thank you kindly, sir. I had that same frustration. Chahine? Chahine who? I’m always finding holes in my film knowledge. Fortunately, I live in a place where it’s easy to fill them.

  • Caroline spoke:
    20th/12/2011 to 10:53 pm

    Hi. I just wanted to say that as an Egyptian, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. I also wanted to clarify that Youssef Chahine was christian not muslim; but in Egypt censorship is generally a problem for all Egyptians (christians & muslims).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/12/2011 to 8:24 am

    Caroline – Thanks for the clarification and for visiting the blog.

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