THE OTHER (Youssef Chahine, 1999)

For 55 years Youssef Chahine made films, and he is without doubt the premier Egyptian filmmaker. Indeed, he is indisputably one of the luminaries of world cinema, to which his Lifetime Achievement Award at Cannes in 1997 testifies. His most remarkable work began in the late 1950s (and includes the 1958 Cairo StationBab el hadid) and continued for some fifteen years. Prolific, and blessed with longevity (he died in 2008), Chahine may have tarnished his legacy with his later crop of films. I have now seen four of them from the 1990s and 2000s, and none of these justifies Chahine’s exalted reputation. For instance, this is the case with The Other (El Akhar; L’Autre).
     A convoluted melodrama involving the crossed paths of two families, one humble, the other rich, The Other is at least mildly entertaining, which I cannot say for the backside-numbing Destiny (al-Massir, 1997). But its critiques of globalization and terrorism remain murky, and the connection it wishes to draw between the two, however tantalizing the notion of such a connection, is murkier still. The Other frustrates when one tries to make sense of it. It’s best to let the film just wash over one.
     The two principal characters are both young and adorably attractive. Adam, a graduate student, is home from the United States, where he is writing a thesis on Islamic fanaticism. He is the son of a wealthy businessman and an American mother, who, a victim of paternal incest in her teens, now sexually obsesses on him, stroking a leggy photograph of him snapped at the beach, and doing her utmost to sabotage his love life, which has included a long string of girls. Hanane is the girl, though, whom he really loves and even marries. She is a reporter whose current investigation exposes Adam’s family as corrupt. Adam’s mother is, eventually, supportive of the union, but Adam’s mother is adamant that she alone is worthy of loving her son. Even setting aside family differences, Hanane and Adam are having marital difficulties.
     The film heads to a bloody finale that, involving computer virtual reality, and kidnapping and terrorism at Adam’s mother’s manipulative behest, fuses Romeo and Juliet and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). Chahine, working from a script by himself and Khaled Youssef, whips up heartbreak on a dime, but one is left scratching one’s head as to What It All Means. Moreover, the route that takes us to this finish is studded with imprecise action. For instance, after a violent quarrel between the newlyweds over Hanane’s work, we “see” Hanane taunting Adam with a masquerade as the homebound slave she feels he would prefer her to be, whereby he angrily retaliates by treating her as such, by beating and raping her. Soon after, they are back in one another’s arms, reconciled. Upon careful reflection that takes into account other instances in the film where what is shown is in fact what some character or other is imagining, we realize that the brutal scene we “saw,” with its violation of marital tenderness, never actually happened. These “imaginings” no doubt have some connection to the computer-screen virtual realities that we “see” and enter elsewhere in the film, but don’t ask me what that connection might be. I am at a loss to penetrate much of Chahine’s intent.

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