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Fox Lorber presents
Alexandria...why? (1978)

"Bear with me. What do I have but complaints and more complaints about this ship of misery... this tomb that is Alexandria. Oh, Alexandria! Why was I ever born here?"
- Yehia (Mohsen Mohiedine)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: September 28, 2000

Stars: Mohsen Mohiedine
Other Stars: Naglaa Fathi, Farid Shawki, Gerry Sundquist
Director: Youssef Chahine

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:06m:30s
Release Date: August 22, 2000
UPC: 720917523323
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-C-C D+

DVD Review

Alexandria... Why? (Iskanderija... lih?) is an Egyptian film about Yehia (Mohsen Mohiedine), a creative and talented 18-year-old boy in Alexandria during the final days of World War II. Against the background of Rommel's invasion, Yehia stages a successful high school show and an unsuccessful commercial production after which a friend of the British ambassador suggests Yehia apply to the Pasadena Playhouse in the US. When his application is accepted, his cash-strapped family scrambles to raise or borrow his boat fare. Meanwhile, a Jewish girl named Sarah Sorel (Naglaa Fathi) becomes pregnant but must leave her lover behind; a young British soldier named Tommy Friskin (Gerry Sundquist) falls in love with his politically-motivated kidnapper; and Yehia's wealthier friends plan to leave the country before the Germans arrive.

Director/co-writer Youssef Chahine had been in the business for over 25 years when Alexandria... Why? was made, and his experience shows. The film is skillfully structured, introducing numerous characters and plot threads without losing track of any of them. Chahine's film is about people first and foremost, but he also incorporates patriots and politicians into his story; the high-stakes theorizing and plotting are interesting in and of themselves and emphasize the uncertain nature of all the characters' futures. Despite the pending Nazi invasion that dominates the background, the movie is fundamentally optimistic and joyful—anyone with a creative bent will instantly identify with Yehia's dreams and desperation.

Alexandria... Why? was made in Egypt, presumably on a low budget, and suffers from the technical limitations common to filmmaking outside the Hollywood system. The film's period setting isn't completely realized (probably due to budget constraints), but footage from MGM musicals and WWII newsreels coupled with pop-culture references to Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr successfully establish its timeframe. Chahine also employs some innovative cinematic techniques, though dated technology interferes (his moving camera is sometimes shaky.) But Chahine's cast and crew overcome these issues handily, at times seemingly by sheer willpower, as is the case with a delightfully cheesy special effect at the end of the film.

The film's craftsmanship is enhanced by credible, emotionally solid performances from a cast of actors almost completely unknown in the West. Young Mohien Mohiedine portrays the sensitive, film-inspired Yehien with vigor and sincerity—his joys and pains run deep, providing a strong, sympathetic emotional core for the film. The ensemble cast fleshes out the film's social context and staffs a number of interesting subplots; the net effect is an Altmanesque story of Alexandria during World War II, painting a rich portrait of a society under stress while never losing sight of its main character. Alexandria... Why? is an engrossing, entertaining film about people and changing times. I look forward to reviewing the remaining films in Youssef Chahine's semi-autobiographical Alexandria Trilogy (coming soon to dOc!)

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Fox Lorber presents Alexandria... Why? in its original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio, with a letterboxed, non-anamorphic transfer. The transfer appears to have been taken from a broadcast-quality videotape— 3:2 pulldown interlacing artifacts are apparent, with a few video glitches and some noisy reds. One scene blacks out for a few seconds, and shadow detail is often murky. Still, the image looks pretty good, with acceptable detail, color and stability, and edge enhancement isn't a major problem. The burned-in subtitles overstep the letterbox boundaries a bit, and it would have been nice to see a windowboxed anamorphic transfer taken from a film print; but the film is watchable and generally free of the softness and smearing common to video-originated transfers.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoArabic w/ Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Alexandria... Why? features a Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic soundtrack, in Arabic with occasional spoken English (English subtitles are provided.) The low-budget track suffers from significant hiss, crackle and occasional dropouts, though these defects don't interfere to the point of distraction. There's even a bit of low-end bass audible during military newsreel footage. A competent transfer given the quality of the source.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. DVD Production Credits
  2. DVD-ROM Weblinks
Extras Review: Fox Lorber's Alexandria... Why? DVD features minimal supplements—a mere 8 picture-menu chapter stops, Filmographies and Awards for the writer/director and 5 cast members, a screen crediting the DVD production staff, and Weblinks to the Winstar Video and Arab Film websites. The film's burned-in English subtitles cannot be turned off, so native Arabic speakers will have to put up with them.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

Alexandria... Why? is a rich, joyful film that will appeal to anyone who was ever a young dreamer stuck in a small town. Fox Lorber's DVD presentation suffers from a few quality problems and minimal supplements, but don't let that stop you from seeing this entertaining Egyptian movie. Recommended.


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