West of Suez

Film byJonathan Romney

It comes as a shock to a British critic's habitual complacency, but every now and then you realise there are whole chunks missing from our map of the film world. Practically every year on the festival circuit, you learn about another major director whose existence you barely knew of and whose work seems to be common currency just about everywhere else (or at least, wherever they read Cahiers du cinema). These film-makers' work has rarely, or never, been seen in Britain because they come from one of those parts of the world that happen not to be fashionable among distributors.

Egyptian director Youssef Chahine is one - he's not just a missing country on the map, but a whole continent in himself, having made over 30 films since his career began in 1950. Apart from being credited with discovering Omar Sharif, he became most widely known in the late 1970s when he embarked on a series of stylised autobiographical films, beginning with Alexandria . . . Why?, which have variously been compared to Fellini and Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. Despite his cosmopolitan tastes and background (he was trained in Los Angeles), Chahine is known for his determination to make cinema that is, as he puts it, "nothing but Egyptian".

Chahine has been much criticised in the Arab world for his emphasis on liberalism, and his 1994 film The Emigrant was banned in Egypt, supposedly under fundamentalist pressure. His new film Al Massir (Destiny) has been seen as his direct response. It's an impassioned polemical statement in favour of religious tolerance - which also happens to be an all-action medieval costume musical.

Destiny is costume drama of a kind we've rarely seen - a curious stylistic mish-mash that at first sight looks heavy-handed, antiquated and naive. But its bold, expansive energies quickly reveal it as a very sophisticated, forceful use of populist film traditions to carry a message. Set in the 12th century in Andalucia under the reign of the Caliph Al-Mansur, it's the story of the philosopher Averroes, judge, scholar, commentator on Aristotle and the first man to describe the workings of the human retina (something that, crammed as the film is, Chahine somehow just didn't manage to work in).

The story begins in Languedoc, with the translator of Averroes' works burnt at the stake as a heretic. Immediately, on sight of the gawping peasants and spear-wielding soldiery, our reflex reactions set in and we reach for the handy term "hokum", suspecting we're in the territory of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then the heretic's son heads for Cordoba, where Averroes is holding convivial court at his dinner table with his extended family. Among them are the two sons of the Caliph himself, one a dashing dilettante, the other - why, he's just a dancin' fool. By the time the film bursts unexpectedly into an all-singing, all-hoofing gypsy routine - tossing chairs in the air to the lyrics, "We defy life with song" - Destiny somehow doesn't seem like your average studious historical trawl.

The complex intrigues unfurl at a dizzying pace - it's like Dynasty, or Alexandre Dumas. Malevolent forces ally themselves with the Spanish against the Caliph; the sinister Emir masses his fanatical troops, who abduct and indoctrinate the Caliph's son Abdallah; intrigue drives a wedge between the feckless Caliph and the pensive, tolerant Averroes, who becomes the target of a fatwa. Even if the plot ramifications are sometimes hard to follow, there's always plenty to keep our attention: star-crossed love, masked skulduggery in moonlit alleys, the perils of white-water rafting in the Pyrenees.

It can sometimes be unsettling, this strange carnival diversity, with its mix of modern and apparently archaic styles. Chahine seems to draw on the Bombay musical, the Hong Kong historical action genre, and the Hollywood biblical epic - some of the night scenes are washed with Technicolor greens and reds straight out of 1950s Cecil B de Mille. Even the working-out of the fundamentalist theme has an odd cosmopolitan spin: Abdallah's induction into the Emir's green-clad cult has echoes of Californian cult indoctrination, with curious homoerotic overtones, and there's a bizarre sequence in which a big musical knees-up is used as an anti-cult deprogramming technique.

The engagingly gravitas-laden Nour El Cherif as Averroes is no Charlton Heston - more like a jovial, careworn middle-aged academic torn between commitment to his work and the desire for a quiet family life. For all the film's scope and bravado, Chahine never lets go of the intimate human touch. A week's limited exposure at the ICA is better than nothing, but this is rattling entertainment, one of the rare films of the year that have a burning raison d'etre, and one of the even fewer ones that could conceivably change your picture of world cinema.

"Destiny" runs at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 (0171-930 3647) from 13 November

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians