Monday, January 31, 2011

Cairo Time

Given the fact that Cairo has barreled its way to the top of the world news this week, it seems like a good time to introduce you to a small but beautifully made film called Cairo Time.

Written and directed by Canadian Ruba Nidda, it is one of those films that grows on you, which is to say that when I initially watched it, I found it a bit slow, its plot simple, and dialogue sparse. And yet, this quiet little story stuck with me. The bonus section of the DVD was instrumental in opening my eyes and mind to what an interesting film it really was, in that both the interviewer and the actors brought out points that I had not considered: points well worth examining. Even more so now than when I first saw it some months ago.

As one film critic so eloquently put it, Cairo Time is “a slow walk through ancient landscape.” It is the simple story of American Juliette Grant, an empty nester who happens to be a magazine editor, though far removed in temperament from someone like Vogue’s Anna Wintour, (as immortalized in Merle Streep’s Miranda Priestly in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada. Though, as portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, she might just as well been a housewife, schoolteacher or shopkeeper. She is, in fact, the wife of UN diplomat Mark Grant, (Tom McCamus) who has been working in Gaza, where he oversees a refugee camp.

When the film opens our heroine - the fair-haired, fifty-year-old Juliette, is going through Customs, having flown from the states to meet Mark for a vacation in Cairo, but soon finds that circumstance within the camp are such that he can’t get away. He sends former U.N. employee Tareq Khalifa (played by a then 44–year-old Alexander Siddig), in his stead. Tareq is a gentle soul, who resigned his post under Mark to take over his father’s coffee shop. Tareq is Muslim. An Arab―someone Sidding described back in 2009 as being a direct contradiction to the more violent roles he has played in the past. With Juliette left to fend for herself, Tareq takes on the role of guide and friend. And over time, bonds between the two are formed, affections are felt, and choices are made.

The going is slow here – the film could almost be called Real Time rather than Cairo Time. We are given a chance to see the relationship between Juliette and Tareq grow. Had there been quick cuts, and a faster pace, we would not have felt the same way about these two people, which is to say that in this case, slow is a good thing.

What we do see is a city that is hot, crowded, dirty and a bit frightening on one hand, and beautiful and calm on the other. Pyramids can be seen in the not-too-distant distance; children and goats mix and mingle with cars and businessmen.

The plot basically revolves around how Juliette spends her time as she waits for her detained but devoted husband to return to Cairo so that, among other things, they can see the Pyramids together. It is a tale of restraint and affection, where things are insinuated rather than investigated. Though, at 37, writer/director Nidda was somewhat younger than her middle-aged characters, she skillfully and quietly managed to inhabit their dilemmas, thoughts, and decisions. In the DVD’s accompanying Q&A, both she and the film’s stars note that this story wouldn’t have worked had the characters been younger. "When you’re older," notes Siddig, “you worry about mistakes more. Acts become more significant and have more at stake.” And so this is a romantic story where the smallest of gestures divulge great affection.

Never having been to Egypt, I found the vistas and pictorials fascinating – a tribute to both the land and cinematographer Luc Montpellier. One has to wonder what it will look like once the dust has cleared.

Siddig is handsome, warm, and attractive in a non-movie star way. Up until now he has, apparently, played more volatile characters. In the DVD’s bonus piece he says that he hopes that people who see this film will come to know that while there are those whose motives are not pure, there are many more good, kind and giving men in that part of the world.

The fact that Cairo is currently in chaos makes this 2009 film all the more interesting. While Juliette’s safety is a concern, and the volatility of the area underscored by her husband’s absence and a brief but frightening bus scene, it is not a political film as such– at least I didn’t see it that way. But now, as word comes that statues of Tutankhamun and other irreplaceable antiquities have been damaged or destroyed by looters over the past few days, the images captured in this 2009 film take on a new importance.

In and of itself, Cairo Time won’t win any awards. Some reviewers criticize the director for choosing to avoid the trendier side of the city. Others point to the fact that Alexander Sidding’s accent is not that of an Egyptian, and Clarkson’s attire is politically incorrect – particularly given the fact that she works for a fashion magazine and would be aware of such things. Despite those and other perceived flaws,I believe it is worth seeing, for no other reason than that every now and again we need to get away from the highly predictable, formula romantic pics where strangers meet and fall into each other’s arms, despite the consequences.

Slow? Yes. This movie is slow. But, as Ms. Clarkson put it, "the silences are earned" here. For it is what is not said that makes Cairo Time a movie to remember.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mid-August Lunch

While other folks were sifting through the ever-shrinking Sunday paper, preparing for the coming work week or whisking the last vestiges of food off the city’s supermarket shelves in anticipation of a major snowfall, I was watching Mid-August Lunch, a 2008 75-minute labor of love the New York Times referred to as "a luminous sliver of a film."

What this Italian trifle lacks in size and scope, it makes up in charm. It is the simple tale of an unemployed middle-aged fellow name Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio) who lives with Valeria, his ninety-three year old, strong-willed mother in their working class neighborhood condo.

Forget your idea of what a condo should look like. This one is old and dilapidated, with neither air conditioning or doorman. The pint-sized apartment is devoid of granite counter tops and flat-screen TVs. The paint is chipping. The air is thick. The stove is dated and the elevator is rickety. It couldn’t cost much to live there, and yet as we soon find out, hard times have kept Gianni from paying his share of the condominium fees for over three years, and the natives are restless.

As the film opens, it is mid summer – August – and the day before Pranzo di Ferragosto, one of those sun-soaked holidays where residents head for someplace other than their place to celebrate. Gianni and his mother are two of the few who remain, she, watching her pint-sized portable TV, he, nursing his mild heart condition with a glass of wine or two or three. When condo manager Luigi knocks, Valeria fails to answer, not so much for fear of strangers, but because she knows Luigi is there to collect.

With no money to offer, and much to be gained, a bargain is struck. Luigi is itching to get out of town, but can’t leave his elderly mother (Marina) alone. If Gianni will ‘baby sit’ her for the next day or so, he will forgive his debt. Sounds like a plan, and so it is that Gianni and Valeria agree to welcome Luigi’s mother (Marina Cacciotti) with – if not open arms, than at least, a sofa bed’s-worth of comfort and some of Gianni’s tasty vitals.

But wait – there’s more! Luigi arrives not only with Mama Marina, but Auntie Maria (Maria Calì) who, it turns out, has a wee bit of dementia. But there’s no turning back, and Gianni’s heart begins to pound from the stress.

Fast forward, as the doctor arrives – allaying Gianni’s fears that he is having a heart attack, and promising a full work up after the holiday (“if”) Gianni will tend to the doc’s elderly mother (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) while he does a holiday hospital shift. There’s nothing to say but “Yes”, and soon Grazia arrives, complete with a full list of do’s, don’ts and medications she must take throughout the day.

And so it is that this little apartment becomes a home for the aged literally overnight, – with each of the four ladies trying to carve out her own place in the pecking order. As the exasperated Gianni, writer/director Di Gregorio is low key and totally believable, as are the four ladies who make up the list of major players in this winsome little film.

It's interesting to note that the idea for this film came from personal experience. It seems that despite the fact that Di Gregorio was married with children, his aging mother expected him to leave his family and take care of her in her small apartment. And because he was a good Mediterranean-born son, he did just that for the better part of a decade.

As Gregorio's condominium debts grew, the manager approached him with a proposition similar to the one made in the film. If Di Gregorio would pop downstairs each day and play a game of cards with the manager's aging mom, the debt would be forgiven.

Unlike Gianni, Di Gregorio declined. He said there was no way he could manage it, but over the years he thought about what would have happened had he agreed. The script for Mid-August Lunch grew out of such contemplations.

It took a long time to get this movie made. As with other films about the elderly (Driving Miss Daisy comes to mind) investors weren't anxious to produce a film about 'old people.' When financing did come through, it was very limited, which was one of the main reasons non-professionals were recruited.

In fact, the only professional in the troupe is Alfonso Santagata, who shines in the role of the condo manager. Gianni’s friend Viking was played by Luigi Marchett, a lifelong friend of Di Gregorio's. Similarly, the role of the doctor is played by his friend and physician, who used his notes on his own mother's care as a prop.

Of the four women in Lunch, only one had anything close to an acting credit prior to filming. Even Di Gregorio was a novice. He became the 'star' of the piece when the actor he had hoped to secure bowed out. With money tight, and time a wasting, the producers suggested that he take on the role, which, they pointed out, called for a middle-aged man who liked his wine, had lived with his mother as an adult, and knew what it was like to be in debt.

Making life easier for all involved, Di Garegorio allowed the ladies to use their own first names in the film, along with some personal keepsakes. Other treasured props include a tablecloth and crockery from his mother's apartment, which, as you may have guessed by now, is the very same apartment you see on screen. The owners gladly gave him permission to shoot there, in hopes that if the film actually made any money, Di Garegorio would finally be able to pay off the last of his condo debts.

The resulting film is a happy mix of home-style Italian cooking, unlikely friendships and gentle humor. Bonus-section treats include an interview with De Garegorio and a trip down memory lane, as the writer/director/actor visits with each of his unassuming co-stars. These one-on-one in-home conversations give you an idea of how much the ladies got out of their unexpected burst of fame, at a time when they least expected it.

Mid-August Lunch, like other films I have featured here, is far from a perfect piece. It is, at times slow, and the cinematography won’t win any awards. But the fact that it isn’t slick, has no quick cuts or deep conversations and lacks any star power, makes it all the more charming and worth while.

Short and not altogether sweet, funny and touching, this Italian treat is one of life’s simple pleasures.

Sometimes less really is more.