by George Sax
In one early scene in Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), the American wife of a UN official, pulls a chair onto her hotel room balcony in order to sit and try to take in the vast, intricate social and human panoply of Cairo before her: the Nile’s traffic, the busy streets, a man on a prayer rug, another sewing a red sail by the river. We can imagine that for her, the air in this very complex scene is charged with something strangely new, alluring but a little disorienting. Like her experience in the streets as Egyptian men stare and smile at her, follow and even brush against her, forcing her to take refuge in a shop. “It’s been a long time” since that’s happened, the middle-aged Juliette tells someone later.
She’s supposed to be meeting her husband, but he, organizing a refugee camp in Gaza, has been delayed by an outbreak of illness. She’s been met at the airport by Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a slightly younger, attractive man who used to work with her husband and now runs his family’s fashionable coffeehouse. It’s to him she makes the admission about the local wolves. Eventually, they will exchange more significant admissions, as her wait for the husband is extended. And Juliette will have quiet but attitude-challenging experiences in this ancient, changing, occasionally dangerous culture.
In a way, Nadda’s film is a feminine—not feminist—variation on an old story of a Western traveler entranced and unmoored by the “Orient,” once told by writers like Gustave Flaubert, Oscar Wilde, and Andre Gide. The writer-director doesn’t go for any really big, confrontational events—with one partial exception. And gradually, Cairo Time becomes a softly contoured story of poignant failures, what-ifs, and glimpsed possibilities. Sometimes it seems there’s not enough happening, but what’s there is often lovely and affecting. Clarkson, who’s been impressive in a great many films, and Siddig sensitively enact a story of—in the famous word of another Western visitor to the East, E.M. Forster—connecting.
Watch the trailer for Cairo Time
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