I recall that at some point in my life, a friend had visited Egypt – Cairo and the Pyramids at Giza. He brought me some pictures, and I remember being quite jealous. Despite having traveled to many places across the globe, I never did get to visit Cairo, and probably won’t ever see it in person.
But thanks to Director Ruba Nadda and her 2009 film, Cairo Time, I have at least gotten to see Cairo, and savor its exotic visual flavors, its rhythms, and it’s teeming multitudes as they go to the mosques, shop in the souks, sail on the Nile, as well as deal with traffic, the noise, and all the other anxieties and pressures that city life, in any city, can and do bring to you.
Sadly, Ruba’s film cannot bring the smell of the coffee (Cairo serves the world’s best the film tells us) to me. Instead, I watched a man and a woman dance around each for the better part of 90 minutes. It looked like a mating ritual, and it surely was what people do when they are deciding to get close or not. For sure the music helped set them on their way. I don’t hear Egyptian music everyday of the week, so the impact of the music was even greater than it might normally be in a film.
The fine actress, Patricia Clarkson, played Juliette Grant, a married woman who flew into Cairo to meet her husband who worked for the UN. The husband, Mark, was detained while working with refugees in Gaza, and does not show up in the film until the last 10 minutes. Mark’s former colleague, Tareq, played superbly by Alexander Siddig (Deep Space 9 and Miral) meets Juliette at the airport and drives her into town while explaining that Mark will be delayed.
Clarkson is the visitor to Cairo, and, while she isn’t quite overwhelmed by the city, she clearly fits into the fish-out-of-water role. She doesn’t know her way around. She doesn’t speak the language, and she’s totally unfamiliar with Cairo’s beat, or it’s customs, and she’s ill prepared to deal with the men who cross her path on the streets.
But she’s marvelous in this role. She does a stunning job of conveying the perplexity of having to deal with everything that comes up. You can see the emotions crossing her face, but they’re never overblown or overdone. Whether she has to quiver with nervous energy, or show us her embarrassment, or even a little bit of fear, Clarkson shines. But she needs some help in learning Cairo’s tempo. When she begins to read Tareq’s not so hidden intentions, then her hesitation or uncertainly is so finely drawn that if you watch carefully you will be amazed at how well she projects them. So when she starts to respond to Tareq you can see how unsure and confused Clarkson’s Juliette really is, and that turning this page isn’t easy for her.
Enter Tareq. He’s courtly, he’s polite, and he’s perfectly at home in Cairo. He’s also single. As played by Siddig , we know at a glance that he could be interested in Juliette, but he’s also loyal to his friend Mark. But little by little, as Tareq and Juliette share coffee, sail the Nile, talk in the beautiful parks, or simply walk towards the setting sun which is behind the pyramids, their proximity to each other is leading us towards something.
Nadda does a superb job of showing us Cairo, and she also does a superb job of building towards a romantic encounter. What is less successful is the script itself. It is almost as if the the words that are spoken aren’t sufficient to propel the story forward. You might even say that the dialogue gets in the way of the visuals. Yet, you can see the subtlety of Siddig’s performance as Tareq
Besides that, there aren’t that many words to hear and absorb anyway. We get plenty of those moments when words aren’t really necessary. Clarkson and Siddig are able to say so much to each other in non-verbal ways.
I’d have to say that I enjoyed the film. Cairo has an appeal for those of us who have experienced life in a big city but it is also so very different than let’s say New York, or Paris, or Beijing. The women with their head coverings, the filled coffee-houses, the heat, the ongoing struggle or fight for space between the motorized vehicles and the pedestrians is scary, yet fun to watch
Another comment is to say that Nadda has filmed a love triangle. There’s Clarkson’s Juliette, Sidding’s Tareq, and the third party is none other than the city of Cairo itself. And to me, it is easy to say the Director Nadda did a better job with the city than she did with the characters or the story.
In the Making of segment on the DVD, Director Nadda discusses the impact that Cairo had on her when she was younger and visited the city with her mother. For me watching Tareq and Juliette navigate their way up a few levels of steps and then take a seat on the Great Pyramid itself was almost thrilling. I won’t forget that scene.
It is really a remarkable and outstanding film – only not quite in the way you might have expected it or wanted it to be. If only what the characters said could have matched up better with what we saw. This was an actors film that was better, like the song said, when they said nothing at all.