Egypt’s cinematic gems: The Train

In 1986, Ahmed Fouad created an onscreen calamity: Two train conductors die in a bloody fight, and facing inevitable death, the passengers break down one after the other as the speeding train carries them to a dark destiny.

Like many great films of the era, The Train (Al-Qetar) charts a befuddled society that had survived two wars and was hesitantly entering a new era of capitalism and consumerism, but unlike the others it’s an action movie.

Almost every person on the train, heading from Cairo to Aswan, is fighting some sort of internal battle.

Nour al-Sherif shifts between comedy and drama with impressive ease as Khaled, an initially rather sleazy aimless soul who’s lost faith after facing defeat in war and who represents a young generation that’s taken refuge in nonchalant detachment. On the action front also, Sherif delivers: Scenes in which he’s on top of the train trying to enter the conductor’s cabin are impressively believable.

Amin al-Henaidy excels as a slurring drunk who’s given up on his dreams and resorted to substance abuse for relief – a lost middle-aged man who eventually snaps out of his comatose state to guide people out of the catastrophe. Nabila al-Sayed, a crafty comedian, plays his wife, a controlling and patronizing middle-aged woman who’s lost respect for her shell of a husband. We can’t help but sympathize a bit.

Salah Nazmy plays a greedy purple-suited businessman heading to Aswan for a big party he’s arranging for other businessmen he’s planning to exploit later on. You get the feeling that he’s not 100 percent ethical. Abdel Galeil plays a young upper Egyptian man brought home from Cairo to Upper Egypt by his angry mother to avenge the death of his father, and Waheed Seif plays a penny-pinching husband struggling to make ends meet.

Finally there’s Farida (winningly played by Mervat Amin), Khaled’s love interest and a voice of reason.

“I’m looking at life! At people! At the passengers of this train!” says the unhinged train conductor (Fouad Ahmed) as the unknowing passengers give comic turns entering the train before embarking on their hellish journey. He had murdered his wife in the film’s first few minutes because she was having an affair with his friend and assistant conductor, whom he is about to catastrophically confront.

In 1959, Naguib Mahfouz wrote a story about a group of people stuck together in an elevator that stops between floors in a classy Zamalek building. The resulting film by Salah Abou Seif shrewdly exposes the hypocrisy of a society a few years after a corrective revolution: The tragedy unveils the true colors of each person trapped inside the metal box. In 1986, Abou Seif recreated a similar predicament in Al-Bedaya (The Beginning), telling the story of an airplane of passengers trapped in a desert oasis. The Train emerges from the same place, but its fast-paced action sets it apart from its more static peers.

The fact that it’s an action movie and a well-executed one also puts it in sharp contrast with other great films that shed light on a confused and drained Egypt, such as Saeed Marzouk’s Al-Mozneboun (The Guilty, 1976), Mamdouh Shoukry’s Zaer al-Fagr (The Dawn Visitor, 1973), and Hussein Kamal’s Tharthara Fawq al-Nile (Adrift on the Nile, 1971).

Fouad used chroma key compositing, otherwise know as a green screen, to create the action scenes to great effect, and renowned cinematographer Ramsis Marzouk, known for working mostly with Youssef Chahine and Yousry Nasrallah, cleverly captures the thrill of the action with keen aerial and span shots, right from the dramatic landscapes of the opening credits. Marzouk wasn’t new to action movies: in 1984, he shot The Lost Plane (Al-Taeira al-Mafqouda) a film by Ahmed al-Nahas about a plane that crashes and gets buried in the quick sand of the Egyptian desert.

Finally, influenced by glorious disco of the 1980s, Tarek Sharara created a score that’s at times edgy and industrial, with a foreign newness that somehow explains a country that was becoming an ally of the United States and a people who were adapting to a new identity.

Fouad is also known for quite different films — his collaboration with comedy guru Adel Imam in Ragab aal Safeeh Sakhen (Ragab on Hot Tin, 1979), for example, and 4-2-4 (1981), one of Egypt’s most celebrated cult movies, about a young man who inherits a football team — but The Train is both representative of a critical time frame in the history of this country, and an action masterpiece for its time.

Amany Ali Shawky 

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