Monday 26 January 2009

Destiny a movie which gives a perspective

DESTINY/Al-Massir (1997, Egypt, 135 min.), directed by Youssef Chahine; screenplay by Chahine and Khaled Youssef; cinematography by Mohsen Nasr; music by Kamal El Tawil and Yohi el-Mougy; edited by Rashida Abdel Salam; with Nour el-Cherif (Averroës), Laila Eloui (Manuela, the gypsy woman), Hani Salama (Prince Abdallah), Khaled el-Nabaoui (Crown Prince Nasser), Mahmoud Hemeida (The Caliph, Al- Mansour), Safia el-Emary (Zeinab, Averroës' wife), Mohamed Mounir (Marwen,The "Poet"), Fares Rahouma (Youssef/Joseph), Abdallah Mahmoud (Borhan, the young fanatic), Magdi Idris (Sect Leader); in Arabic with English subtitles.

In a single day, I expect to cry, laugh, dance, sing. I may even be locked up in jail. A film should contain all those things. --Youssef Chahine
If there is a message in Destiny, it is the following: one must leap into the battle. Averroës embodies what I have always advocated: opening oneself to the Other.--Youssef Chahine
"Ideas have wings. No one can stop their flight."--Destiny

Like Bab el-Oued City, which we showed last week, Destiny deals with a very contemporary problem: the rise of religious fundamentalism and intolerance. Instead of setting the film in contemporary Egypt, though, the celebrated (and highly idiosyncratic) director Youssef Chahine has chosen to approach the issue indirectly, through the story of the 12th Century Arab philosopher Averröes.

Ibn-Rushd, known to the West as Averroës, was born in 1126, in Cordoba, center of Islamic Spain. He came from a family of qadis, judges, whose responsibilities were both civil and religious. The qadis were the most learned of men, intimate with the details of religious law, the sharia and the hadith, but also with the traditions of secular learning (including natural philosophy and medicine) that stretched back to the times of the ancient Greeks, preserved for centuries by Arab scholars.
Sometime after 1153, Averroës became closely associated with the noted Arab scholar and physician Ibn-Tufail, who introduced him to the Almohad Caliph of Marrakesh, in present-day Morocco. The Almohad dynasty ruled in Northwestern Africa and most of Spain. The Caliph, Abu Yaqub, was himself a scholar and patron of learning. The Caliph encouraged Averroës to pursue a sustained series of commentaries on the works of Aristotle, a task which would consume much of his time for the rest of his life. The philosopher's goal was to apply the illuminations of Aristotelian logic and Platonic insight to the teachings of the Koran and Islamic law, bringing the two into harmony. Through his notion of "the univocality of being," which flowed downward from a Central, Creative Intelligence, or Supreme Principle, Averroës attempted to reconcile Greek natural philosophy with Islamic cosmology. He also wrote extensively about medicine, mathematics, astronomy, political philosophy, and ethics. His brilliance, eclectic mind, and deep humanism attracted a number of students.
While deeply engaged in these philosophical pursuits, he also had a busy secular life, serving as Qadi of Seville and then eventually of his native city of Cordoba, where he became Chief Qadi, one of the primary positions in the Almohad governmental administration. After 1182 he was also personal physician to the Caliph, and traveled frequently from Cordoba to Marrakesh. The Cordoba of that time was a vibrant mixture of cultures--Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Gypsy--generally living together in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect. It was one of the most brilliant periods in the history of both Arab and Jewish thought.
Averroës continued as a court favorite until he retired from his secular duties in 1195 and moved to Seville. It is speculated that his retirement had something to do with religious controversy and the intrigues of the increasing power of conservative theologians, directed against his efforts to synthesize logic, natural science, and religious thought. He died three years later, in 1198. For various reasons, his death brought to a close the brilliant period of Arabic speculative philosophy that had begun more than four centuries before.
Almost simultaneously, however, his writings passed into Christian Europe, where they were translated into Latin and served to re-introduce the scholarship of the ancient Greeks and Roman writers to the West. The impact of his writings on Medieval thought would be incalculable. In fact, for the next three centuries, all versions of Aristotle's writings would be accompanied by Averroës' textual interpretation and commentary; he would be known simply as The Commentator. "Averroism," a philosophical tradition based on his method, would continue in Europe well into the 17th Century.

* * *
Destiny opens in southern France, with a man being burned at the stake by the Christian Inquisition for the crime of having translated forbidden works by "the Infidel Averroës." His son watches him burn, then steals away across the border into Spain and makes his way to Cordoba to the home of the great scholar himself. It is a dramatically different world than the one he has left--a world of culture, luxury, learning, and grace. Averroës' household percolates with life, love, and good humor. An amazing variety of people frequent the household: the brother of the Caliph, the Caliph's sons, the gypsy dancer Manuela and her sister Sarah, the singer Marwen, poor students, wealthy students, a former religious fanatic whom the philosopher has taken in, Averroës' independent-minded daughter, and, of course, his devoted, spirited wife Zeinab. Still, in the larger world of Andalousia outside this eclectic household, the seeds of the same malady that has the Christian north in its grips--ignorance, intolerance, and intrigue--are to be found, and increasingly so.
The region is ruled by the Caliph al-Mansour, proud and self-centered, disappointed in his two sons. He looks to Averroës for guidance, as did his father, but refuses to follow the philosopher's advice. The Caliph's elder son cares little for matters of state. He prefers the company of horses, and, increasingly, of Averroës (and Averroës' daughter). The younger son is weak, sensual, and easily distracted; he will become the brainwashed tool of a religious sect whose goal is to unseat the Caliph and the political/intellectual establishment, and establish the rule of fundamentalism and religious purity. Needless to say, Averroës will be the object of their most intense animosity, and the Caliph will be unable to shield him from their schemes.
Averroës' followers will be driven by one all-consuming goal: to preserve the philosopher's writings from destruction, to preserve his intellectual legacy for posterity.
* * *

Most Americans don't realize that Egypt has long been a great center of film production, exporting movies all over the Arab-speaking world. Although output appears to be dropping (in part because of the resurgence of religious fundamentalism, in part from American dominance), as recently as 1993, 76 feature films were made in Egypt. Most are action films or melodramas, but there are also a number of serious film artists. Chief among these is Youssef Chahine.
Chahine was born in 1926 in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria to a well-to-do Catholic family. After studies at Alexandria University, he spent two years studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles, then returned to Egypt to enter the film industry. He has been making films since 1950, when he made the comedy Baba Amine/Papa Amine. Since then, he has made 32 features and 6 shorts. He has worked in nearly every genre. Most of his films have been popular, entertaining, and rarely seen outside the Arab world.
Chahine discovered a number of the Egyptian cinema's top stars, including Omar Sharif (whose first film was Chahine's 1954 Sera Fi El-Wadi/Sky of Hell), and frequently collaborated with the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz.
Many Chahine films have garnered top prizes at international film festivals, including Cairo Station (1958), Saladin/El Nasser Sallah-e-din (1963), The Land (1969), Alexandria, Why? (1978), Farewell, Bonaparte (1985), and, most recently Destiny (1997). The Land was recently named best Egyptian film ever made in a recent poll by Egyptian film critics. The 1996 Locarno Film Festival did a complete retrospective of films by Chahine, and the release of Destiny in 1997 led to a Lifetime Achievement award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
. In all his films, Youssef Chahine has managed to blend his international perspective and outsider status (religious, intellectual, and sexual), with a deep love for his country and its traditionally humanistic, tolerant tendencies. Though set far from his native Alexandria, Destiny is suffused with the spirit of his cosmopolitan home. As Jonathan Rosenbaum perceptively notes, "Universality is not merely part of his aim, but part of his cultural baggage."
Through the story of the 12th Century philosopher, Chahine has mounted a powerful attack against the forces of intolerance that he sees raging around him. In fact, the initial impetus for this film was the religious establishment's condemnation and near-banning of his 1994 film, The Emigrant, based on the life of the Biblical Joseph. Destiny was his response to the fundamentalist programme of intolerance and blind obedience, and its condemnation of individual interpretation and creativity.
Chahine was also motivated by the experience of a young actor friend, who had fallen into the hands of a fundamentalist sect, was brainwashed, and in just a few weeks had totally transformed into an automaton. The results of this dehumanizing process, seen on a personal level, terrified and enraged him. He saw these fundamentalists as representing the forces of death. For Chahine, Averroës represented the opposite. Averroës, Chahine told a reporter for Le Monde, "is a thinker who always takes the side of life."
And ultimately one of the great beauties of this beautiful film is the sense of vitality, a love of life in all its complexity, of passion and music and good food and dance. And philosophy. The film possesses the rich, flamboyant style that we have come to associate with Chahine--where characters can break out into song without notice, where the emotional lives of characters are written on their sleeves. Against such a backdrop, religious asceticism emerges as a narrowing of life--as something demonic, duplicitous, and self-serving.
Ultimately, Chahine is an optimist. He not only believes in life, he believes that the forces of life and the free expression of ideas do have the power to prevail over the forces of intolerance and limitation. As we see in the story of Averroöes, ideas--i.e., the free expression of the individual--have wings, and no one can stop their flight. It is their destiny to prevail.

--Notes by Michael Dembrow

Much of the information on Averroës comes from Stuart MacClintock's entry in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 1.

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