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Youssef Chahine's manifest Destiny

By Peter Keough

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  There's nothing like a burning heretic to grab your attention at the beginning of a movie. Shekhar Kapur staked us to three in his Elizabeth, and in Egyptian director Youssef Chahine's Destiny, another epic historical drama with contemporary resonance, a 12th-century Frenchman is ceremoniously torched for copying the writings of the Islamic philosopher Averroës.

You may feel less attuned to this saga of the political and philosophical intrigues of medieval Islamic Andalusia, or even be put off by the film's meandering narrative punctuated by melodrama, broad comedy, and musical production numbers. Then again, you may find this film's issues more cogent than the realpolitik of the redoubtable, proto-feminist Virgin Queen. An impassioned plea for tolerance and reason and against fundamentalist fanaticism, Destiny also fares well as a rollicking and intelligent, if sometimes clumsy and heavy-handed, entertainment.

Chahine himself is no stranger to persecution and censorship. His previous film, L'émigré, the story of the Biblical patriarch Joseph, was pulled from release in Egypt after religious groups protested that it was illegal to depict prophets on the screen. Such fanatical small-mindedness is the chief target of Destiny, which is unusual even for a Western film in its espousal of liberal values. A philosopher noted for reviving the teachings of Aristotle and insisting that true religion relies as much on reason as on revelation, Averroës is a voice needed more urgently now than ever.

Unlike his fundamentalist adversaries, however, Chahine doesn't think teaching a lesson needs to be an obstacle to having a good time. So exuberant is he in spinning yarns, indulging colorful characters, breaking into song, and cutting a carpet that at times it seems the film might better be titled Density. He begins with the adventures of the archly named Joseph, son of the unfortunate heretic of the beginning sequence, who flees France for the more open-minded environs of Islamic Spain -- where he bumps into the sons and brother of Al Mansour, the Caliph (Mahmoud Hemeida), hanging out at an inn run by the bibulous bard Marwan (Mohamed Mounir) and his wife. The group embraces the hunky, blue-eyed Joseph as part of the family, and all join in with Marwan in a celebratory, badly lip-synched and jarringly contemporary song-and-dance.

Joseph's destiny, though, gets lost in the shuffle of the family and political wranglings to follow. The worthy if somewhat vain Caliph complains to his adviser Averroës (an earthy and avuncular Nour el-Cherif) about his worthless sons. Crown Prince Nasser (a charismatic Khaled el-Nabaoui) is interested only in horses and women -- particularly Marwan's winsome daughter. And young Abdallah (Hani Salana) just wants to dance. For his part, Averroës is concerned about the growing influence of a growing fundamentalist cult out to stifle free speech, and about the machinations of the Caliph's Machiavellian adviser, Cheikh Riad (a sleekly sinister Ahmed Fouad Selim).

The two sets of problems converge when the green-clad fundamentalists seduce -- almost literally, in an extraordinary bath-house scene that glimpses the sexual pathology of certain religious extremism -- callow Abdallah into their cause. Meanwhile Nasser, Prince Hal-like, puts aside his carousing to join up with Averroës in resisting the burgeoning wave of intolerance. Despite the complexity of alliances, treacheries, romances, and intermittent production numbers that ensue, Chahine keeps his Destiny clear. Sometimes with hoky over-emphasis, as when Joseph resurfaces to smuggle books back to France, a sequence made ludicrous by the crescendo of operatic music on the soundtrack.

Despite such lapses, Destiny pulses with warm-blooded fervor and surges with moments of genuine eloquence. The opening conflagration is mirrored in the end -- this time Averroës's books themselves are set ablaze. Tossing in the last volume is Averroës himself -- triumphantly, perhaps a little too optimistically, because he believes that ideas have wings to surmount all worldly impositions. Perhaps so, but bad ideas -- fanaticism, intolerance -- have wings too, despite the efforts of such films as Destiny to soar above them.

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