Cairo Time
Reviewed in August 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Ruba Nadda. Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Amina Annabi, Elena Anaya, Mona Hala, Tom McCamus. Screenplay: Ruba Nadda.
Twitter Capsule: No groundbreaker, but more up its sleeve than ads imply. A nuanced view of the traveler's weary, agitated lassitude.

Photo © 2010 Foundry Films/Samson Films/IFC Films
The narrative of Cairo Time settles into a will-they-or-won't-they portrait of forbidden attraction, which is memorably acted and handled with some storytelling grace, especially at the end. No points for figuring out that Ruba Nadda has screened The Bridges of Madison County at some point in her life, and especialy enjoyed the late scene in the pickup truck. But, if you're going to pay homage, mimic the best! (And while you're at it, a bit of Lost in Translation won't hurt anybody.) Still, this trajectory feels like a kind of default alternative to the film's earlier, more interesting rhythms, when Clarkson's character is almost choosing to be seduced by Cairo to fulfill a kind of social pact that requires bland niceties from tourists, and to avoid feeling worried about her husband, or angry at him, or forlorn about her own dwindling sense of purpose. Absolutely, the idiosyncratic glamour of Cairo casts its own low-key spell, and the flirtatious charge running both ways between Patricia Clarkson's Juliette and Alexander Siddig's Tareq might well have arisen in any context. But Cairo Time takes quiet, disciplined pains to insist upon its context: this is not a snapshot of Cairo as an arbitrary locus of "exotic" adventure, and Juliette's personal circumstances have a bit more grain to them than the broadly sketched, post-collegiate anomie of, say, Scarlett Johansson's Translation character. Juliette is constantly, disingenuously assured by everyone—Tareq, the hotel staff, the other hobnobbers at the American embassy—that her husband Mark is surely "fine" despite his vaguely evoked and protracted detainment in Gaza. She's meant to act pleasant about the fact that she's a stranded American bourgeoise without much to do while she waits for Mark, who is clearly not the easiest communication partner for Juliette even under less constrained circumstances. As we learn more about Juliette, we realize why she feels too driftless or deflated these days to put up any resistance to anything: fond but somewhat lonely marriage, kids gone, career that encourages agnosticism and self-scrutiny even as it has thrived. But as these nuggets emerge, they complicate Juliette rather than demystifying her, or reducing her to empty-nest cliché. And as she and Tareq get more interesting, the film grows more subtly insinuating.

Sometimes the easiest way to appear polite and to enjoy a downward-spiraling trip that you'd really meant to enjoy is to emit friendly, meatless banalities ("Your hijab, it's so beautiful..."), and to rhapsodize about experiences that you aren't fully connecting with. During one of Mark's middle-of-the-night phone calls to Juliette, she tells him that she "went on a Nile Ride" with Tareq, who is a recently retired colleague of Mark's. A "Nile Ride" sounds like something you would take at Epcot Center, but the point of the scene isn't to make Juliette sound crass, it's to make her sound like her trip around the world is turning into a half-effective anti-depressant. "It was fascinating," she reports. "It was stunning," and yet, what we saw was her looking mildly intrigued but visibly clenched in an unremarkable boat, in unflattering light, before a less-than-inspiring and mostly static tableau of the city. The best, most surprising thing about Cairo Time is that it captures the sense of an incongruous person going through the soulless motions of "having a good time," or at least trying to sound like she is, even to herself. And the scenario is more interesting because Juliette really does want to have a good time. She's not a spoilsport or an idiot, even if it hasn't occurred to her to ask anyone how to say "thank you" in Arabic until she's already arrived, and she is capable of suddenly confessing, for example, that she cannot imagine an Egyptian man watching TV. Still, her real problem is that she's rather hemmed-in, by her present predicament and also by some recent and specific life experiences, and she is not quite prepared to be confronting this city on her own, at least not in earnest. She's admiring and sleepwalking, which puts an unusual hamper on Cairo Time's expected aplomb for dazzling its arthouse patrons with vivid, orientalist detail. I'm not saying Cairo Time has none of that, or that the movie failed to tempt me into booking a hypothetical trip to see the city myself. Still, engendering touristic urges is far from the main goal of the movie, and its plot and characterizations are not, as I expected, just disposable constructions in order to mount a paean to Egypt that could just as easily have been shaped around someone very different.

If anything, it's odd that Cairo Time itself feels a bit leery of diving more fully into the city. Even conceding that we share Juliette's limited point of view and constrained range of motion, the movie feels like it's holding itself away from the faster, more crowded, more complicated Cairo that glints in the backgrounds of several long shots, while Clarkson stews on her porch or wafts somewhat wanly through the streets. She finds it a bit too easy to find Tareq when she needs him, and they head out of the city even more than they venture into it. I also notice that he's the only Egyptian male on whom Cairo Time is willing to take a gamble on genuine interaction. The only near-exception is an older, smiling coffee-house buddy of Tareq's whom Juliette meets twice but to whom she barely says three words. He's like a piece of the furniture, just as the men on an ill-fated bus heading from Cairo to Gaza exist to make a graphic impression of Juliette being one of only two women in the vehicle, but not to suggest any kind of freestanding life, even an unexamined one. Nadda has written a script that can't quite muster the drive to endow more than two characters with any dimensionality, yet it seems to lack the temerity to restrict itself entirely to these two people and see what it can show us about them (à la Before Sunset), minus the dramatic convenience of a few supporting foils.

Still, asking the movie to be less tentative would almost certainly diminish what is most interesting about it, too: its palpable sense of being ill-at-ease without quite being unhappy. Several shots and scenes endure much longer than they would if Nadda weren't trying to show us the strange double-bind that has got Juliette flying halfway around the world in order to kill time, and feeling deeply self-conscious, even foolish about it. (She has obviously inhabited this position before). Is "Cairo Time" a general state of things in metropolitan Egypt, or is it a tenet of what it feels like to be a rueful wife on indefinite hold, a jet-setter but not quite a cosmopolite, with a demanding job of her own that's also a bit embarrassing, and who only needs so many people to offer patronizing promises that she has nothing to worry about? I appreciate that Nadda keeps that mystery open, and that Clarkson is willing to look sufficiently drawn and spent that Juliette's fatigue stays front and center, even when she's blooming with sudden contentment or looking casually ravishing in the clothes that Juliette surely purchased specially for this trip, in addition to those she has bought on this trip. Clarkson wears all of these light-textile, Easter-colored outfits with a coquettish, half-concealed smile, while she waits, a bit smugly, for Siddig's Tareq to tell her how fetching she looks. Sometimes he complies with her brief but potent yearnings for affirmation, and sometimes he doesn't; I'm glad Siddig is feisty enough to give Tareq some edge, as when he paternalistically tells Juliette when she's smoked enough from her first water-pipe, and then winks with a self-aware chuckle at how chauvinist that gesture obviously is. There's a testiness between Tareq and Juliette, part and parcel of their interest in each other, that's occasionally written a bit too on-the-nose, but also gives them an interesting air of genuinely not knowing what they think about each other—and being deeply conscious that they're only seeing very particular sides of each other. Or, that they're both affording themselves the luxury of simply avoiding the parts of each other that they find less than enchanting.

You don't always love your chaperones or your fortuitously made friends, not even the handsome and generous ones. In this and other ways, Cairo Time shows a commitment rare among Western-lady-abroad pictures to showing just how agitating and unflattering travel can be. For as many shots that find Clarkson looking typically radiant and comely, there are just as many where she's caught harshly off-guard by the blistering sun, or shaded by a garish sail, or betraying the signs of insomnia. And though I may be describing Cairo Time as feeling a bit edgier than it does—bluehairs looking for breezy, vicarious teleportation to foreign lands are unlikely to be disappointed—I liked how Juliette's trip is filled with tiny but biting moments of accusation, as when a seatmate on a bus expresses an obviously disdainful surprise that Juliette hasn't visited the Arab world before, or when Tareq has to get her out of a tough scrape at an inconvenient time. The imprecation "How could you be so headstrong and insensible?" registers all the more strongly because Nadda doesn't force him to say it out loud. Cairo Time breaks no new ground, but it's thoughtful about how and why it manages its images and its pacing, about how and why it deploys costumes and body language, and about just how allegorical it would like to be in relation either to East-West relations or to the fantasy of quasi-romance in the age of heavy airport security. In some of the earliest moments of Cairo Time, also some of the first piquant notes in Clarkson's muted but very smart performance, Juliette greets a custom's officer with a tired, blank face, as though she's nervously pre-empting any kind of trouble by trying to look as "faceless" as possible. In her second close-up, she actually risks the slightest wisp of a smile at the same official, as though she wonders, fleetingly, whether she can get any affectionate rise out of the people she'll meet in Egypt, and whether she ought to try.

All of this seemed more intriguing than the well-played but more or less familiar melodrama of longing and regret that eventually swallows most of the oxygen in Cairo Time. Still, it's a reflective, surprisingly subtle piece about character and about location, when I had expected either a completely anodyne travelogue or a dogmatic, Yes-style disquisition on the Infuriating Obtuseness of These People in relation to Those People. The movie doesn't just exist as a vessel for performances that shoulder all of the expressive burden, and nor does it recruit touristic photography to seduce our goodwill for an imprecisely conceived tale. Not everything in Cairo Time works, but everything from the sound elements to the editing, especially, have been adapted to the purposes of this story, which you'd imagine is a basic expectation of work in this artform, but we know how often this isn't so. Nadda shows even more skill and care with small details than with the big picture, as when she keeps the traffic noise mixed abrasively high throughout Tareq and Juliette's first conversation, and when she waits till a very specific, evocative moment for Juliette to repeat one of her outfits. The film repeats and holds shots for expressive effect, instead of cutting by reflex to close-ups of its able cast, and it occasionally opts for subtly inspired camera set-ups, as when we scrutinize Clarkson and Siddig after an awkward exchange at the hotel elevator, without either actor being able to glimpse what the other is feeling. Cairo Time is not a landmark of the year, or even of the month, but it's a thoughtfully calibrated piece of storytelling, about a long-deferred first date between a woman and a city—one that's foreign to her, in almost every way possible. The date goes fine, in some ways better than the woman expected and in some ways worse. Unlike many stories in this genre, the protagonist seems to realize she only made a tentative inroad into the culture she is visiting, and in any event, it seems clear that both she and Cairo will end up seeing other people. But which people? How soon? And why, precisely? I'm so glad to be able to say that I'm not sure, but Cairo Time has furnished me with a host of nuanced questions, and a rooting interest in pondering them a while, even after the film is over. Grade: B

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
The director proves that these sorts of stories don't need to alternate, as they so often and unimaginatively do, between fully lit closeups and gorgeous long shots of "local color," separated by edits of metronome regularity. Rhythm, editing, and light are allowed to carry their due weight, which sets a worthy example for films in this tradition and allows some expectation that Nadda's artistry could grow in interesting directions.

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