About 5 years ago, Misr International Films took to YouTube and made available an incredible array of their films, including a notable selection by the company's founder, the late renowned Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. Browsing through their selection earlier this year, I came across a goldmine - a series titled Histoire De Chaine / حدوتة شاهين, a televised series detailing the immense career of the director, through interviews with him and his various collaborators. Much to my dismay, more recently, however, all their videos are now made private!
Initially, I had intended this piece to detail highlights of this series on Chahine, a more in depth look into his filmography as a way for me really to familiarize myself with his rise to fame, his accomplishments, and his collaborators. I managed to get to episode 5 I believe after which the series was made unavailable. But it was that last episode I watched that struck me. While each episode before that had comprised a certain phase of his career, that episode was entirely dedicated to his historical epic, Saladin (1963). Rightly so, the film is an integral masterpiece in Egyptian and Arab cinema, the importance of which reverberates to this day as evidenced by the fact that it is constantly screened on TV and watched repeatedly by many ardent admiring fans.
In his book, The Arab National Project in Youssef Chahine's Cinema, Malek Khouri writes, "the key significance of the film remains entrenched in the way it engaged the political discourse of the day, and how it refashioned the ideological and political use of a popular Hollywood genre as a new kind of Egyptian and Arab film". Politics aside, one of the first CinemaScope productions in Egypt, the cinematography of Saladin is a vision to behold. While strongly rooted in the conventions of the genre, with its epic battle scenes, elaborate costumes, and sweeping location set pieces, Chahine takes as many liberties with lighting and framing as he did with historical accuracy both of which elevate the film beyond a generic straightforward historical epic. He moves seamlessly between realistic lighting and deep perspective to dramatic theatrical lighting and framing. In the film's penultimate scene, 'the fall of Louise', Chaine splits the screen between to court scenes, that diegetically take place in different locations but through theatrical production design are constructed on the same set. Chahine's dramatic lighting cues, alternately shift attention from one character to the other, who despite existing in different locations appear to have a dialogue directly with each other. It's simply sublime and as a result is remembered as one of the film's landmark scenes. Below is an attempt at a brief scene breakdown. The scene starts by cross-cutting between the two courts, nothing unusual there. Then, the camera tracks back to reveal the two court setup, eventually stripping the scene of everything while only highlighting the central characters to the scene.
Lighting dramatically changes, while the camera tracks back to reveal the two court set up.
Spotlighting key characters in the scene.
Bridging characters with light.