— by JOEL CRARY —
While looking into some background information for “Cairo Time,” I discover that writer-director Ruba Nadda was nearly arrested multiple times by Egyptian police during filming. Now there’s a movie. A Canadian filmmaker and her crew head abroad to film a feature in Egypt and are tossed out of the country. What Nadda offers instead with “Cairo Time” is a rather reserved look at the Egyptian culture and political climate, albeit one with an extraordinary view.
The film stars Patricia Clarkson as Juliette, who arrives in Cairo as the films opens to meet with her husband Mark (Tom McCamus). Mark works for the United Nations, organizing refugee camps in Gaza. He’s a busy man and can’t get away to entertain Juliette, who spends most of her time in her hotel room expecting the phone to ring.
Certain shots in “Cairo Time” reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” which is one of the best films about loneliness I’ve seen. Coppola’s shots of Tokyo made the city look like an intimidating cement jungle that thoroughly isolated a young American woman whiling away hours gazing out her window high above the city. Nadda’s shots evoke a similar feeling. Cairo stretches out under Juliette’s hotel balcony, promising excitement but also evoking a hesitation in the face of the unknown.
The main problem with the film is that its efforts to communicate the passionate emotion it promises fall flat. Juliette is completely alone. Her husband is absent and she doesn’t know when he’ll return. Her children are grown and have gone out into the world to build their own identities. She is in the middle of a city that perplexes her Western sensibilities. And she has absolutely nothing to say about any of this. Instead, her emotions are communicated with longing glances at the horizon and slow-motion strides into temples and city squares.
Juliette befriends a former coworker of Mark’s, a man named Tareq (Alexander Siddig). He has retired, runs a coffee shop and enjoys playing games of chess in a men’s-only cafe. The two begin to spend more and more time together. He provides an outlet for Juliette’s anxiety, a way for her to combat her loneliness and build an understanding of the city. Clarkson looks stunning and it’s gratifying to see her take centre stage in a film. Both she and Siddig are terrific actors and it’s easy to believe in their budding attraction for each other. Nadda builds it gradually, taking her time with each character revelation and moment of clarity.
Unfortunately, things proceed a little too gradually. I enjoyed Nadda’s use of the pyramids as the film’s grand symbol, and her final scenes are her strongest because of the emotion on display. Juliette and Tareq’s relationship, which is really all the film is about, consists of two people killing time with each other. They rib each other jovially over their cultural views but never challenge each other. They begin conversations about Cairo’s political climate and economy that sound intriguing but only scratch the surface. A scene in which Juliette attempts dramatic entry into Gaza is barely questioned later. Nadda leaves Cairo an expanse of nearly impenetrable otherness in which one either speaks the language or belongs somewhere else.
“Cairo Time” took home the award for Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has everything the typical lauded Canadian film has: a not-quite-famous but recognizable American actor in the principal role, multicultural themes and a vanilla plot. Canadians generally seem content when the films we produce don’t look entirely like stereotypical independent efforts, but we too often mistake production value with film quality. “Cairo Time” looks great. Its characters scan the horizon as if they’re impressed with how the budget was spent.
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