This 1958 Egyptian work has an impressive reputation; some reviews I’m reading compare it to Hitchcock’s work, and others compare it to the Italian neo-realists. I can see cases for both – and I can also see a uniquely 21st-century resonance, as the main character is basically an incel before there was a word for such a thing.
That main character is Qinawi (Youssef Chahine), a lame drifter who ends up at Cairo’s main train station. The kindly newsstand owner Madbouli (Hassan el Baroudi) takes him in and gives him a job selling newspapers on the platforms, and also finds a shed somewhere in the trainyard for the homeless Qinawi to live in. However, that’s all backstory for the main event, dispatched in a quick montage with Madbouli narrating things for us; the montage ends with Madbouli stopping by the shed to find that Qinawi has practically wallpapered it with pin-ups of half-naked lingerie models, and warns us in the narration that “I probably should have forseen where Qinawi would end up.”
Madbouli pretty much drops out of the main narrative after this, leaving the story to Qinawi, and his desperate and unrequited obsession with Hannuma (Hind Rostrum), one of a group of women who peddle bottles of soda to train passengers. Hannuma and the others aren’t exactly allowed to do this, mind you, so they’re also trying to always stay one step ahead of the police and the station’s manager. But Hannuma’s hunky fiancé Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi) is one of the station’s porters, and is also trying to start a union that will bring equal opportunity to all who work at the station – legalizing the soda girls, getting equal pay for the porters, and generally improving work conditions overall. On the day of our story, Siri and Hannuma are both on their last day at work before they hop a train themselves, heading to Hannuma’s home town to get married.
Even so, Qinawi goes for broke and proposes to Hannuma, formally presenting her with a gold necklace of his mother’s and promising her a fine house by the sea in his own home village, lots of children and a whole herd of cattle. The saucy Hannuma teases him as she shoots him down – she’s already marrying Siri, she laughingly tells him, and besides how could he give her all that when he’s flat broke with a bad leg? As she flounces off, the heartbroken Qinawi glances at the papers he’s been selling – especially at the cover story, a lurid article about a woman’s headless torso that was discovered in a crate at another train station. She must have been murdered elsewhere and then shoved into the freight compartment, the article states, but it’s not clear where, and police are stumped and the killer may get away with it. This inspires Qinawi – he will give Hannuma one more chance, and if she still turns him down, then she’ll be sorry…
Another couple subplots turn up now and again, like Siri’s unionizing efforts and another low-key tale of a young woman trying to secretly meet her boyfriend at the station before he leaves for a job across the country. There are also other little slice-of-life moments with the various passengers and travelers passing through – customers squabbling at ticket counters, women scolding kids, men asking for directions. There’s a whole sequence where Hannuma jumps aboard one train to sell her soda and finds a rock band rehearsing in there, complete with band members’ girlfriends throwing a dance party, and she joins in with the dancing until she sees Qinawi leering at her through a window and books it. But Qinawi’s obsession with Hannuma was the real story for me – even Siri’s unionizing took a back seat, as it ultimately just involved him making a couple of impassioned speeches and the station manager making a couple of straw-man arguments against him. Siri even seems to get bored with the unionizing at one point and slips off to canoodle with Hannuma mid-day (although, that sequence did start with him scolding her for taking too many risks, and it’s implied he slaps her a couple times – which wasn’t that great a look).
But all the other stuff serves to anchor Qinawi’s story in a place – the weird and bustling underworld occupied by the staff at Cairo’s station. So when the film moves into its dramatic final act, and suddenly all the station’s workers are caught up in figuring out where Hannuma is and whether Qinawi’s done anything to her, you get that this isn’t just a bunch of strangers getting swept up in the story, this really is a bunch of co-workers coming to the rescue of one of their own – and at the same time, they’re also sympathetic to Qinawi’s backstory and want things resolved as painlessly for him as possible. Because he’s not a random stranger, he’s Qinawi, and he also needs help.