Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Until I find who did this, my heart will have no feelings and no mercy

aka Sira Fi al-Wadi (Struggle In the Valley); aka The Blazing Sky

Directed by Youssef Chahine
Written by Ali El Zorkani and Helmy Halim

Spoilers: moderate

As far as I can tell, in the early 1950s, Egyptian cinema just kept ambling along even as the very constitution of the country surrounding it changed.  So while the monarchy fell in 1952 to the Free Officers (the figure you'll likely best recognize is Gamal Abdel Nasser), for some years this transition, from a Kingdom of Egypt to an Egyptian Republic, did nothing to put a stop to the Cairo industry's golden age.  One of Egyptian film's leading lights, Youssef Chahine, was just getting started when this occurred.  He'd just made his breakthrough into the international (or at least European) market when his second film, 1951's Son of the Nile, was screened at Cannes and almost snagged the Prix International.  Chahine would prove to be a busy director, with four further films in just three years (partly this was because back then, Cairo, just like Hollywood, simply made movies much faster than they do today), and while I don't believe that the aforementioned  "leading light" reputation was fully established until 1958 with Cairo Station, I also hold that this is mostly because Cairo Station just tracked better with the priorities of continental Europeans in the late 50s.  (It might be simply because Cairo Station got him in trouble with his home country's censors, which Westerners always like to see of any foreign filmmaker.)

In 1954, however, he made a film rather less regarded (though it also screened at Cannes), but which demonstrated a terrific mastery of another continent's aesthetics altogether, that brought together an exhilaratingat times, downright electrifyingcombination of Old Hollywood-style glamor, Hitchcockian thrillmaking, epic pretense, and social conscience, with more than enough universal appeal to be interesting to (I'd daresay) any viewer, even if they couldn't point Egypt out on a map.  And it did this despite grounding itself fully in the specific socio-political concerns of Egypt as it shuddered with discontent.  It's important for other reasons too: I'm almost burying the lede by waiting so long to note that it was also the film debut of international sensation Omar Sharif (or "Omar el Charif," according to the transliterator here), who emerged like destiny as a full-fledged movie star in this very role.  Meanwhile, it confirmed a new phase for the career of its female lead, former child actor Faten Hamama, who would never get big outside of Egyptian cinema, but did become one of the biggest and most celebrated figures within it.  (Sharif and Hamama married after meeting on set, incidentally, their legal union lasting twenty years before dissolving amidst Sharif's semi-exile from his homeland.)  Plus, it was the first time Chahine managed to get Farid Shawqi, another one of Egypt's big stars, probably the biggest of the three in 1954.  Chahine and Shawqi would collaborate off-and-on for another decade and half, though curiously intermittently (my count's four films together, including this one), despite a mutual prolificity in the Egyptian industry.

This film was The Blazing Sun, this being the Anglo version of the French release title, The Blazing Sky, which in turn had replaced an Arabic title in dire need of some punching-up, Struggle In the Valley.  (I strongly prefer the English title, despite it being a little ethnically reductive and "the sun," blazing or otherwise, being of no importance beyond lighting most exterior shots.  It's simply more evocative, but in fairness to the Arabic title, the latter is more descriptive: there is a struggle, and I guess it's in a valley, and while "valley" would refer to pretty much the entire populated area of the country, I suspect such vagueness is deliberate.)

The Blazing Sun, to get it out there, is just great, pretty much right from the jump, though Ahmed Salam's (Sharif's) opening narration can be slightly worrisome.  He explains how he's freshly returned to his peasant village from agricultural college, and just completed a major overhaul of the sugarcane fields on behalf of his fellows.  He hopes that his efforts shall increase their crops' quality to the point that they can compete with those of their neighbor, Taher Pasha (Zaki Rostom), the local big landowner whose cane had always been more attractive to industrial buyersand if you were just listening (hell, maybe if you were actively watching), and are aware that Egyptian cinema in the 1950s and 60s (and Chahine's movies in particular) tilted increasingly towards social realism, this might scare you into wondering if what you're in for is a boring movie about poverty and economic justice.  It is a movie about poverty and economic justice; but not a boring one, and any fear it might be is allayed by razor-sharp editing and charged compositions that somehow turn that question, "will the sugarcane be of commercial grade?", into some genuinely nerve-wracking suspense.

The surgarcane is of commercial grade, and this is bad news for Pasha and his nephew and henchman Riad (Shawqi)we meet Riad first, introduced to us as he giddily shoots a cat from the balcony of his uncle's palace, which should give you a decent sense of the amount of subtlety Chahine and his screenwriters intend on here.  Our villains, anyway, hatch an especially dastardly plot to open the dams, flood the fields, and eliminate their rivals.  Their scheme's execution is only briefly delayed by the arrival of Pasha's daughter Amal (Hamama), home from college in Cairo, and over whom Riad openly lusts.  Amal's heart belongs elsewhere, of courseto Ahmed, once her childhood sweetheart, and who's never forgotten her, either.  Their romance will not have a chance to fully blossom, sadly, for soon Riad does indeed flood those fields, whereupon the village's blind shiekh first accosts Ahmed's father Saber Abdul Salam (Abdul Wareth Asar), Pasha's errand boy, before visiting Pasha himself to accuse him of the crime.  Riad cobbles together a clever cover-up, however, and this one looks like it'll stick, when he and his accomplice, local yokel Hassan Hassan*, steal Saber's rifle, assassinate the sheikh, and frame him for the crime.  The mob cries for Saber's bloodhe's only saved, and only temporarily, by the intervention of the police.  Naturally, Ahmed believes his father's protestations of innocence, and swears to find the real killer.  This makes him Riad's next target (at least once he permanently silences Hassan).  But Riad and Pasha may not have to do anything to rid themselves of this turbulent agricultural engineerfor not only is Riad gunning for his rival, the sheikh's heir Selim (Hamby Gheith) has sworn vengeance upon the son of his father's murderer, too.

I'm apt to be charitable about it because otherwise the movie doesn't happen, but I'll admit that our heroes are a tiny bit slow on the uptake: the only person who ever asks "who benefits?" is the old blind man who gets shot before he can tell anyone else.  The most meaningful criticism I can level at it otherwise isn't much of one, in that it's perhaps slightly slow in the wind-upit has a lot of moving parts to set up, and Chahine also has a noticeable interest in grounding us in the rhythms of the village life that Ahmed still shares with Selim and the rest, as contrasted with that of the wealthy, Westernized elite of Pasha's mansion.  That winds up being a successful gesture anyhow: the first act might stop itself cold to hang out with the villagers, but it's only so we can attend a wedding which becomes a musical number driven by two dueling folk songs, one for women and one for men (and, for what it's worth, they're even pretty good songs), with Amal welcome but nonetheless out of place in her immodest European dress.  It is also, equally successfully, a romance: I can't say in full honesty that Sharif and Hamama's chemistry is so strong as to make it clear on the screen that they were actually fucking (or sure, about to fuckgolly knows Omar Sharif wouldn't do anything haram, like extramarital sex), but they have a sweet rapport that might be even better for this film's purposes, and it's inordinately charming to follow along on their reunion and on their little dates, and Ahmed's insistence on sticking with Amal's childhood nickname of "Potatoes" is just plain cute.  And their love, tested by a very extreme situation, necessarily grows more intense and fraught as it goes on; Amal enters Selim's cross-hairs too, inasmuch as Amal, in his view, is a rich aristocrat's whore daughter, clinging to her bourgeois boyfriend.  But that gets us ahead of where we need to be, and suffice it to say that the slack picks up instantly once Riad's assassination plot is put into motion, and The Blazing Sun becomes a supremely tight thriller.

Nevertheless, the story is maybe the least of it.  In Egypt in 1954, The Blazing Sun was still free pursue a mode that Hollywood itself had been obliged to abandon to compete with television, and it's wonderful beyond words to see the survival here in another cultural context of that particular brand of aesthetic perfection which Hollywood had achieved in the 1940s.  And so Chahine (who'd spent time in America in the 1940s working for 20th Century Fox, incidentally, though he was not involved directly in any filmmaking there, and indeed had actively avoided being drawn in) and his cinematographer Ahmed Khorshed showcase their command of a very Hollywood aesthetic: deep focus, staging into space, diagonal composition across an Academy frame, strong, motivated camera movement, noirish black-and-white lightingthe works.

It means that every single scene and almost every single shot has something that grabs you by your throat, from the littlest things, like the perversity of Pasha and Riad discussing what the sheikh's killer "would" do in response to these unanticipated events with poor Amal sitting blissfully unaware between them, or the intercut dolly-in on the sheikh as he threatens to reveal Pasha's scheme; to the flatteningly bombastic, like Sharif, shambling through a doorway in utter exhaustion and less a couple of pints of blood, falling face-first towards a camera on the floor (and damn near almost hitting the lens).  Likewise, even the ethnographic village scenes have a certain iconic imprint upon them; the wedding is simply well-built fun, but the sheikh's funeral is a superb exercise in drawing impact out of the way the eye follows the line of mourners along a riverbank snaking out of and back into view, broken by the sudden explosion of the coffin out of the right side of the frame.  It is not, even so, just some static simulacrum of a 40s movie.  Chahine deploys more jaggedly contemporary techniques throughout, getting downright aggressively modern at times: Ahmed's meeting with his father in prison separates them across a mesh of wire and a series of assaultive close-ups, built with such blunt directness and acted with such rawness that if you'd stumbled into this scene all by itself, you would feel every bit of their painful separation; and then there's the matter of Fouad El Zahiri's score, frequently appearing as a choral howl that crushes out every other sound in the film without warning.

It almost wouldn't matter what examples I used: I could practically just list every scene, and find something gushingly complimentary to say about it, like "the keylighting on Hamama is amazing," or "the bad-ass and well-sited location shooting makes this movie feel like it cost ten times more than I'm sure it did," or "the Soviet montage that details the village flood is neat."  (The exceptions to such gushing really would be rare: I will say I do not greatly admire some of the clunky chase choreography when Ahmed finally catches up to Hassan; and the stillness of Selim's stalking Terminator isn't uniformly well-used.  When it works the sheikh's son feels like a grim specter; when it doesn't work, it unfortunately emphasizes that, for whatever reason, Chahine was reluctant to make anybody in this film run faster than a light jog.)  It is, in any case, all bound together by Sharif's ragged performance, eventually rendering Ahmed a force as much as a man, a collection of close-ups of eyes burning like black stars.  The worst thing I can say about Sharif is that his limitations probably dictated that "Soviet montage" thing, as he's a good enough actor to cry on command over a condemned father, but evidently needed a modicum of help from the editor and fake tears to do so over a waterlogged field that he presumably wasn't even looking at.

There's a slight sense that 116 minutes is a long time for these characters to never rise beyond archetype, but this is also the film's strength: besides redeeming the extremely (but extremely effective) broad-as-a-barn acting that Shawqi and Rostom are bringing to the table here for their villains, it also permits Chahine to miraculously use an elemental story of injustice to tell a story about a very specific Egypt, then in the midst of a revolution sweeping away the aristocracy.  It nods toward neorealism and observation in its sympathy for the common clay, but it much prefers the fable as its defining mood (its antagonist is, literally, "the pasha"); and that mood is rather intensified by the fact that no location in the whole film, whether it's Pasha's mansion, or the fields, or the village, or the omnipresent pharaonic ruins that apparently stand right outside the village, seems to be more than a five minute walk from anywhere else.  And underneath that fable there are some fascinating ruminations on Egypt's entry into modernity, Ahmed and Amal straddling the line between old and new, rich and poor, science and tradition, Western and Egyptianpointing toward the future, beset on both sides, resisting the cruelties of each, ultimately rejecting the exploitation of a dying ruling class, and even rehabilitating the savage morality of peasants who explicitly want to kill a guy over something his dad did (and his girlfriend because she was seen with him at night without a chaperone).  To the extent The Blazing Sun is discussed, the discussion does not usually grapple with its distaste for Selim, the villagers, and their bullshit honor; though of course a second antagonist operating at cross-purposes to the main antagonist and causing chaos is a swell addition to the great thriller that The Blazing Sun, in its deepest heart, really is.

It all culminates in one of those perfect endings, where Chahine pulls his film into something akin to a dreamspace while still pursuing that classic technique.  He sets his three-way final battle against the backdrop of the ruins of a great temple of unfathomable antiquity, emphasizing that this is a struggle of historical forces in an arena as old as his country, if not as old as time itself: the pillars constrain and structure the action, becoming an almost-abstract geometric nightmare defined by disorienting alternations between anxious claustrophobia and extremely long shots that trap our heroes and villains within the very foundation stones of Egypt.  And beyond that, it is simply fucking cool, a well-utilized setting where Ahmed barely dodges bullets by ducking behind stone, and enemies lunge unexpectedly from behind columns, and all that.  This is a gorgeous and exciting movie, and that's what's most important of all.  But it's deeply thoughtful in ways that thrillers often don't get to be; and, when it wants, it's emotionally pulverizing, uncompromising in ways you won't expectbut, in the end, even if it all but slaughters the past, it looks upon the future with a certain cautious optimism, too.

Score: 10/10

*At this point in the cast list I would have to start guessing, so I'll simply say that Abdelghani Khamar and Ahmed Abdel Warethwho I assume is not the same person as Abdul Wareth Asarare both in this film, and one must play the sheikh and one must play Hassan.

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