By Jeffrey M. Anderson (reprinted from 5/2/10 -- San Francisco Int'l. Film Festival)
Ruba Nadda's gorgeous Cairo Time -- which won Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto Film Festival -- will no doubt be compared to Lost in Translation and Before Sunset, delicate tales of dislocated souls who find solace in other, equally dislocated souls, usually in a foreign land. Usually these people are already married, or at least come with complicated baggage, but it's this wistful yearning, this sense of tragedy and lost time that makes these kinds of movies special. Cairo Time is definitely the least of the three movies, mainly because it never trusts itself enough to get truly lost. Yet, even in its careful hesitation, it finds a kind of grace.
Cairo Time has three stars: the luminous Patricia Clarkson, the lanky, gentle Alexander Siddig ("Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," and Syriana), and the city of Cairo itself, sprawled out around and between them at every moment. It's one of those movies in which the very air -- its smells and warmth -- seems to emanate from the screen. The movie is almost a travelogue, except that director Nadda is smart enough to include glimpses of the city's ugliness as well as its beauty, as well as acknowledging the uneasy, necessary balance between the two. It's a movie of moments, good ones and bad ones, all coming one after another, just like life.
Clarkson plays Juliette, a magazine editor who arrives in Cairo hoping to meet her husband, but he's not there. He works as some kind of diplomat for NATO, and he's stuck in Gaza due to some kind of unexplained chaos. Instead, a man named Tareq (Siddig) meets her at the airport. Tareq used to work for Juliette's husband, but retired to run a coffee shop in town. Apparently Tareq and the husband remain friends, but it's possible to read into him a kind of servitude and gratitude toward the former American employer. This leaves Tareq a little off-kilter when we first meet him, with the promise that he will eventually become his own man over the course of the story.
Things get off to a nice start when a beautiful woman calls to him from a taxi stand. They speak, and the jet-lagged Juliette can't understand them, but she can tell that there's a spark of something between them. It intrigues her. It could be that this little encounter causes her to view Tareq as a romantic, sensual creature rather than a former employee in the shadow of her husband.
Tareq drops Juliette at her hotel and offers his services should she need them. She goes for a walk and is a little taken aback at how the Egyptian men react to a beautiful, elegant, light-skinned blonde. They stare at her, brush past her and touch her skin, and even begin to follow her in groups. Terrified, she ducks into a shop to evade them. A little old man who runs the shop protects her. Later, Juliette wanders into Tareq's café without realizing that it's meant for men only. The men inside are too polite to tell her, and Tareq discreetly informs her of her blunder once they are outside. (Not all men are evil.)
Juliette and Tareq's friendship bonds more firmly after Juliette tries to take a bus to Gaza to see her husband, and is shocked when the bus is stopped by soldiers. An American with an important husband, she is released and told to go back to Cairo, but her fellow passengers -- such as a lovestruck young woman -- are not so lucky. Juliette must call Tareq for a ride, and from there, the two are inseparable. As they walk around and take in the sights, their discussion inevitably goes to the cultural divide. Tareq both complains about and defends his country, sometimes in the same breath; in one scene, he gets flustered when Juliette calls him on this.
As for Juliette, she's far from the ugly American. She's quiet and polite, and though she appears calm and patient, she also looks slightly befuddled by her surroundings. In one sequence, she appears moved by the poor children who are forced to sell knickknacks in the street. She tells Tareq she'd like to do a story on them, but later, leafing through a copy of her magazine, he points out that it's all about fashion and fingernails and how to keep a man happy. Embarrassed, she responds, "That's an old issue."
Nadda unfolds all this with a gentle, observant pace, relying on Clarkson's deep, thoughtful performance to help drive things (and to find some breathing space). Clarkson brings an entire history to this character with her exemplary performance. She's a mother with grown children, and she has lost touch with their day-to-day activities, as well as her husband's. She's a bit sad, and doesn't really seem to know what to do with her time. Yet she still has pride enough to try, to get out of bed and out of her room. She keeps her movements measured and her eyes distant; only Tareq can bring her into the present moment. Thankfully, Tareq is shown to have his dark side as well; he's more than just the "pure," unsullied, non-American native, and Siddig holds his own next to the commanding Clarkson.
When these two fall in love, the movie avoids big, passionate moments or painful payoffs, like the grander, more ardent romances like Brief Encounter and The Bridges of Madison County. It doesn't blame the exotic locale, either. Their love is just something that happened, all by itself, in-between moments. Nadda ties it all together with the idea of a shared experience; Juliette visits the same tourist destination twice, with two men, but her heart only goes once.
(Viewed at the San Francisco International Film Festival.)