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Cairo Time

Posted by martinteller on September 12, 2014

Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) has just landed in Cairo.  She’s there to rendezvous for a vacation with her husband Mark (Tom McCamus), a UN organizer of refugee camps.  But Mark isn’t there.  Mark is held up with work in Gaza, and in his place he sends Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a former associate who now runs a café… that serves “the best coffee in the world”.  Juliette bides her time in the hotel room until she can’t stand it anymore and goes exploring the streets of Cairo.  It isn’t long before she lands in Tareq’s café and the two occupy their time together, a passion slowly building between them.

The movie reminded me of something, and I’m still not sure I can put my finger on it.  Certainly it’s got similarities with Lost in Translation.  I also detected a bit of an Antonioni influence, especially in the first half as Juliette’s isolated outsider status is emphasized.  A scene where a mob of admiring men gathers behind her as she walks down the street recalls a similar event with Monica Vitti in L’Avventura.  Or perhaps the basic construct is familiar: a woman with an unavailable husband finds comfort and the stirrings of romance in an exotic, dashing new man.

But this isn’t a steamy Harlequin novel.  Director Ruba Nadda shows restraint, allowing much of the emotion to be communicated in small gestures and brief glances rather than passionate smooches and longing leers (or heaven forbid, gauzy curtains billowing around a cheesy display of lovemaking).  Clarkson and Siddig are both in excellent form, delivering nuanced performances.  Their chemistry is felt by the viewer, and nothing that happens feels especially forced or contrived.  As far as filmic romances go, theirs is quite natural and believable.  I can’t reveal much without “spoiling” things, but their potentially dangerous feelings seem to have mostly positive influences.  Tareq is definitely a charmer, though not in an overtly flashy way.  There’s a subtlety and grace to Siddig’s performance.  Juliette comes off as too naïve in places, but there’s a hint that she’s puffing up her image as a serious journalist a little.  I wonder if perhaps the character is not as savvy as she’d like everyone else to believe.  Or perhaps it’s a bit of somewhat lazy writing, making her too much the helpless outsider to help drive her towards Tareq.  Either way, Clarkson is eminently watchable, wonderful at using her face.

I know little about Nadda.  She’s from Montreal, and according to Wikipedia her father is Syrian and her mother is Palestinian.  Perhaps at some point she visited the Middle East and particularly fell for Cairo.  The film makes for a gorgeous love letter to the city.  There is a glimpse of the dingy, bustling Cairo as depicted by Youssef Chanine in one of my favorites, Cairo Station.  But what Nadda emphasizes is the wondrous colors, majestic structures, vibrant fabrics and palpable sense of history.  It’s a stunningly beautiful film, with lovely compositions by Luc Montpellier (whose work on Guy Maddin’s delirious The Saddest Music in the World should be enough to establish his cred as a cinematographer).  The movie does not pretend to get down to the nitty-gritty of the “real” Cairo (although an incident on the road to Gaza acknowledges the existence of political strife).  It’s Cairo through the eyes of a tourist, which is what Juliette is.  If the movie oohs and aahs at the scenery, there’s certainly a lot that’s ooh-worthy and aah-worthy.

It takes patience to get settled into this movie, it doesn’t cater to a restless audience.  And it took me quite a bit of reflection to figure out where it sat with me, and whenever a movie makes me toss it around in my mind for a while, I view that as a positive.  And in the end I think the positives win the day.  Rating: Very Good (82)


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