Woman takes unexpected inner journey in ‘Cairo Time’
There’s not much eating in Cairo Time. Praying is done only in the distance, and never by the main character. And as for love— well, that’s a subtle, nuanced, indefinable thing in Ruba Nadda’s meditative romantic drama about an American woman trying to come to grips with her life in an exotic location halfway around the globe.
The storyline may bear a superficial resemblance to a certain Julia Roberts movie, but the inner journey taken by Nadda’s heroine is unintentional, and infused with a kind of seductive languor that’s the antithesis of a typical Hollywood-style narrative. This works both for and against the film to some degree: much of the drama unfolding in the heroine’s psyche is internalized and unspoken, yet a steady kind of tension builds toward what we hope will be the expression of her gradually altering outlook.
The ever-watchable Patricia Clarkson stars as Juliette, a magazine writer from the States who’s taken some time off to visit her husband, a diplomat attached to the UN in Cairo. But her husband, Mark, has been called out of town and sends his associate, Tariq (Alexander Siddig) to meet her at the airport. A native Egyptian, Tariq worked with Mark at the UN for a while, but now he runs a neighborhood coffee house inherited from his father.
Juliette and Tariq make some polite chitchat in the car, then he drops her at her hotel. She’s agog at everything: a stunning view of the Nile, the steamy November heat, the non-stop traffic, day and night, the imam calling the faithful to prayer at sunrise. When Mark calls to say he’ll be delayed a bit longer, she strikes out on her own the next morning to see the sights. But she’s unprepared for the effect of her conspicuously blonde, unveiled presence in the teeming streets of a Muslim city; when she’s been gawped at and jostled once too often by strange men, she takes refuge with the only person she knows in the city—Tariq, in his coffee shop.
As Mark’s return continues to be delayed, Juliette gamely attends an Embassy party (she dreads getting “stuck with the petroleum wives”), meets some Arab women through a new friend at the Embassy, and tries to take a bus to visit Mark in the Gaza, with scary results. Meanwhile, Tariq shows her to smoke a hookah and allows her to challenge him to a game of chess in his men-only coffee shop. They have very different views about culture and gender, but the Western woman at loose ends now that her kids are grown and the Muslim man wounded by a lost love are more simpatico than either expects and begin to form a deeper emotional bond.
But the real love story here is between filmmaker Nadda (a prolific director of short films making her feature debut) and Cairo.
Bewitched by the place on her first visit as a teenager, Nadda portrays Cairo as a teeming, vibrant, sensual place, full of color, noise and music, danger and majesty. Her camera eye (and relaxed narrative tempo) invite us to feast on the city, from a boat trip down the Nile to the extraordinary sci-fi rock formations of the White Desert, from a traditional wedding full of dancing and singing to a trek to the Pyramids at dawn.
Clarkson holds our interest in a poised, sometimes impish performance as a woman just beginning to realize how wistful she’s become over the direction of her life. The Anglo-Sudanese actor Siddig brings delicate reserve and an easygoing charm to a role the filmmaker wrote for him (a nice change from the Saudi princes, sheiks and terrorist roles he’s mostly been reduced to in the movies since he played young Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). If the film’s payoff is more internalized and novelistic than moviegoers might wish, these characters, like the city of Cairo, exert a certain hypnotic pull.
CAIRO TIME ★★★
With Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig. Written and directed by Ruba Nadda. An IFC Films release. Rated PG. 90 minutes.
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