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Friday, 18 October 2019

Remembering Stephan Rosti: The comedian villain

Egypt's renowned film actor and director Stephan Rosti was born on 16 November 1891 and died on 22 May 1964

Ashraf Gharib, Wednesday 22 May 2019
Stephan Rosti
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Fate made a special status that Stephan Rosti enjoys in Egyptian cinema history. A man and a woman from different nationalities met in a third country and agreed to marry and their offspring carried the nationality of the third country.

After 36 years, a half-known actress at the time was enchanted by cinema and assigned to a Turkish adventurer the direction of a film for her. The two of them had a falling-out. The woman then chose another man, who hadn’t directed films before, to direct the film. He became the director of the first Egyptian feature film and this film was released — by coincidence — on the same day of this young man’s birthday.

It was as if Egyptian cinema chose his birthday to be its own birthday also.

Stefano de Rosti Jr, or the actor Stephan Rosti, one of the silver screen’s most brilliant stars who blended villainy with comedy, and vice versa, died 55 years ago on 22 May 1964.

Born to an Italian mother and an Austro-Hungarian baron, Rosti lived a mysterious childhood in which he received some form of education before joining foreign theatrical and show business companies visiting Egypt. By accompanying those companies, he visited some European countries where he also moved between a number of trades, such as translation and tourism, and even as a hawker before getting to know the comedian Naguib Al Rihani.

They worked together in the shadow theatre, and then in The Arab Comedian Company, which included among its members Aziz Eid and Hassan Fayeq. When the Ramses Company was set up by Youssef Wahbi in 1923, he joined it and remained with it for four years, working as an actor, playwright, translator and director of several classics.

From 1927 onwards, Rosti joined Naguib Al-Rihani’s Company and stayed with until 1954 when he joined Ismail Yassin’s Company until his death in 1964.

As for his cinematic career, his beginning was simultaneous with the emergence of the first feature film in Egypt. Actress Aziz Amir agreed with the Turk Wedad Orfi to direct The Call of God, but quarrels broke out and she dismissed Orfi. She started searching for another person to direct the film and chose Rosti, who had some cinematic experience acquired from his practice in Europe, but had never directed.

He benefitted from previously shot scenes, made adjustments to the film and created a main role for himself. Finally, he directed Laila; the first silent feature released in 16th November 1927 when he was celebrating his 36th birthday. Afterwards, he directed another eight films, but his wide fame was built on his acting performance which bore his unique mark, making him one of the black and white cinema's stereotypes in Egypt.

Stephan Rosti’s debut wasn’t in the field of comedy. In Laila, he played a gallant man who saves a helpless girl and takes care of her. In his second film The Sea Laughs (1928), which he also directed, he played a comedic role along with his co-star Amin Attallah, who was a professional comedian. Throughout the 30s and 40s, he moved between a number of roles, while he seemed more inclined to comedy, as in His Excellency Keshkesh Bey (1931) and Antar Effendi (1935).

At the same time, he reached the zenith of villainous roles in A Rainy Night (1939, directed by Togo Mizrahi). Perhaps his success in portraying the villain dexterously in this relatively early role made directors take notice and cast him in villainous roles later.

However, his good sense of humour, which he acquired due to his mingling with genuine natives, took the better of him. Consequently, he began to add this special comic touch to his villainous roles. He created his own mark and became singular among the post-World War II period comedians. In addition, he was aided in this by his fellow comedians, who preferred attracting audiences through good-natured and even naïve characters. In successfully blending villainy with comedy, he became the only villain comedian.

Thus, Rosti became exceptional among the silver screen’s villains and comedians alike. This continued until the 70s, when Adel Adham’s screen persona crystallised and made his mark within the formula of comedic villainy.

Although he opted for a limited frame for himself, he was keen to present variations on villainous roles, which set him free from a monotonous performance as well as not making audiences feel bored. If the gang member was his most famous character role, as in Ember (1948, Anwar Wagdi) and Samara (1956, Hassan El-Seifi), he also skillfully acted the villain hatching plots that drive lovers to have a falling-out in order to seize a huge fortune, as in Passion Beach (1950, Henri Barakat) and Lady of the Palace (1958, Kamal El-Sheikh).

He was the best actor in portraying the opportunist extortionist, as in The Millionaire (1950, Helmy Rafla) and Lady Ghost (1949, Henri Barakat).

During his journey in search of variation, Rosti portrayed the Jewish man three times in Son of the Rich (1953, Hassan El-Seifi) and Hassan, Morcos and Cohen (1954, Fouad El-Jazairly) and in his penultimate film, Absolute Naughtiness (1964, Essa Karama), portraying the Egyptianised foreigner.

Rosti didn’t resort to farce, but relied on situation comedy, and sometimes on one liners. He was also adroit in body language and facial expressions, as well as his special nasal accent.

On the evening of 22 May 1964, Rosti had a severe heart attack while he was playing backgammon with his friends in one of Cairo's cafes and he died minutes afterwards at the age of 73.

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