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.

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