Ranking: #42/111

Director: Yousef Chahine (Egypt)

Genre: Social & Psychological Drama

Made in 1958, this must be the greatest African film of all time. It has an unparalleled emotional intensity, thematic richness and cinematic dynamism. Few could argue with the proposition that Egyptian director Yousef Chahine (1926-2008) is the continent’s greatest ever filmmaker.

Cairo Station is a black-and-white social drama in the style of Italian Neo Realism but taken to a whole higher level through its fusion with elements of Film Noir. In addition, it possesses a remarkable complexity, with its psychoanalytical and political analysis of life in 1950s Cairo, with its contradictory trends of Westernisation and Muslim traditionalism.  It covers a range of deeply pertinent issues, such as class inequalities, workers’ rights, the difficulties of being physically challenged, sexual repression and gender-based violence. Here’s how The Oxford History of World Cinema describes this deep, memorable movie: “In its study of the poor and dispossessed, it has many affinities with Italian neo-realism…It [portrays] the psychological breakdown of a crippled and sexually frustrated newspaper vendor, played with remarkable force and intensity by Chahine himself.” (The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 664)

The film is rich in characters and themes, as well as stunning in its mise-en-scène, centred around the city’s central railway station and containing details gleaned from sustained physical observation. Cairo Station is superbly structured in its narrative, too. In addition, the photography is hauntingly real, capturing the grinding, grim street life of the poor and the challenges of low-income workers.

The camera work is fluid and intimate, close to the action, close to the streets, close to the main character’s sexual obsessiveness and his struggles to be loved. It is a dynamic street level camera, a camera of the low classes and the outcasts, a camera of the proletariat. Chahine’s camera records a kaleidoscope of social activity centred around the microcosm of Cairo Station.

The story concerns a crippled street vendor called Qinawi, an anti-hero played by the director in an electrifying performance, who falls in love with a cool-drink vendor Hanouma, even though she is engaged to another man, Abou Siri. Siri later forms a new union of station workers and porters, which becomes a threat to the corrupt status quo in the micro-economy of the station. Qinawi has “girly” pictures all over his ramshackle dwelling and he quickly becomes a voyeur as he begins stalking and wooing Hanouma. At one point, when he enters her home while she is showering, he is chased away and stones are thrown at him, reinforcing his status as an outcast.

Later, Qinawi even asks her to marry him, deluded that she will go away with him back his village.

The events are narrated in a voice over by Madbouli, the newsagent who gave Qinawi, a young, homeless, lame man slumped in the street, his job of selling newspapers for him.

Meanwhile, the newspapers are full of news about a murder case involving a murderer killing a woman and cutting her up with a saw, before putting her body parts in a suit case at a train station.

Qinawi stumbles upon Abou Siri and Hanouma laughing together and making love. He listens to  them from outside. The sound of the train on the tracks nearby echoes the lovemaking sounds, symbolising the force of sexual desire which Chahine has explored throughout the film.

The rage and frustration inside the lonely and desperate man, who cannot find love in the world, boils over. He goes and buys a knife. He is now morally crippled, in addition to being socially and physically crippled. His fantasises begin to turn violent. This change is symbolically represented when he cuts up one of his pin-up pictures of scantily clad women.

Qinawi tries to lure Hanouma to a warehouse with a necklace so he can sexually assault her, but she sends another friend in her place, Hallawitum. The increasingly psychotic newspaper vendor attacks her in the warehouse and then puts her body in a suitcase in a copycat version of the murder story currently in the news. However, she is still alive.

Qinawi has a nervous breakdown and Madbouli, the only one who cares about him, persuades him to give himself up to the police following the violent crime he has committed. He is taken away to an asylum in a straitjacket.

The director highlights the anti-hero’s moral deformity, combined with his severe physical and social disadvantages, as the cause of his downfall.

Chahine has created a tragic, compelling narrative of frustrated love and dispossession which stands as one of the most powerful, multi-layered social critiques in cinema. It is so intense, it still shocks us today, 65 years after it was made. It effortlessly blends Marxist and Freudian themes, with its trade union working-class politics and critique of inequality and exploitation, mixed up with its interpersonal dynamics of sexual obsession and violence against women.

No wonder the summer heat in Cairo in the movie seems to throb with so much social tension!