Prior to its premiere in Doha a couple of weeks ago, most Egyptian filmmakers had zero expectations for Ruba Nadda’s Cairo-set “Cairo Time. Something about the trailer didn’t seem just right; perhaps it was the over-romanticized landscapes shots, the corny oriental music or the following tagline: “In Egypt, she didn’t expect to meet someone like him.
The good news is: it’s not as bad as we all presumed it would be. In fact, Nadda’s fourth feature has many virtues, topped by a subtle, moving performance by Oscar nominated American actress Patricia Clarkson.
Yet, in spite of her clear affection for the Egyptian capital, the picture Nadda paints is imbued with artificiality. Its lack of authenticity is frustrating, hitting too many false notes; several scenes will leave Egyptian audiences cringing at their absurdity.
Clarkson plays Juliette, a magazine editor arriving for a vacation in Egypt with her UN diplomat husband. Her husband’s work in a refugee camp in Gaza defers their plans, leaving her stranded in an alien city with no acquaintances and nothing much to do. A friend and former colleague of her husband, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), offers his assistance, but instantly disappears the moment she settles in her hotel.
Juliette is initially befuddled by the deafening noise, the congested streets, and the penetrating eyes of male admirers. She’s lonely, estranged by a city she can’t seem to cope with its rhythm. A chance encounter with Tareq leads to a series of trips that open up her eyes to the beauty of Cairo and what has been missing from her mundane life.
The first 10 minutes of the film are absolutely mesmerizing. Regular scenes of Cairo are shown from Juliette’s fresh perspective. Syrian-Canadian Nadda manages to find beauty in the everyday details that we, Cairenes, take for granted. The result is something awe-inspiring, a reminder of how mad, rich and unique this city is.
And then Siddig starts speaking in Arabic and everything starts going horribly wrong. Siddiq is a fine and charismatic character actor who, like Clarkson, can effortlessly disappear into a role. In here though, he appears confused and nervous for most of the film. The real problem with Siddig’s performance is that he can’t speak a word of Arabic. Every single word that comes out of his mouth feels aborted. Not for one moment does he come across as an Egyptian.
Siddiq’s accent is one of many crucial details Nadda takes liberty with, badly distorting it. In one sequence, Juliette and Tareq travel from Cairo to Alexandria, and back in what appears to be a span of a couple of hours. In the most ludicrous scene of the film, a bride is seen changing into a belly dancing outfit for her wedding reception.
Western audience, to whom the film is primarily targeted, will not be concerned with these seemingly minute glitches. For Egyptian filmgoers though, the impact of these details is quite grave, mainly because they constantly shatter the barrier of illusion.
“Cairo Time – winner of the Best Canadian Feature Film at this year’s Toronto Film Festival – is “Lost in Translation in Cairo: A bored woman, leading an unsatisfied life, finding solace with a charming, goalless man. The story is not cliché as much as it feels inconsequential, hampered by pointless subplots and the non-existent chemistry between Siddig and Clarkson. Siddig in particular doesn’t have enough material to chew on. Unlike Juliette, his character lacks sufficient dimensions to fully immerse the viewers into the romance.
Nadda attempts to present an accurate portrait of Cairo, depicting the grittiness (sexual harassment, intense daily commotion) and the niceties (the overwhelming colorfulness, genial people). In many parts, Nadda skillfully captures the vibrance of Cairo, noticeably seen in the downtown area and the countless marketplaces. Every shot in these sequences is rendered with utter fascination. Alas, in context of both the story and the endless stream of travelogue landscape shots of the Pyramids and Old Cairo, these scenes are swallowed whole by a general perspective – no different than her 2005 effort “Sabah – that veers towards orientalism, augmented with Siddig’s trite and overbearingly expositive lines that are chiefly comprised of “In Egypt, we do this, in Egypt, we do that.
In the middle of this incongruity, Clarkson’s exceptional performance is lost. Nadda is at her strongest in the silent moments, and Clarkson carries these scenes with notable grace, injecting them with understated emotional charge. Nadda understands her heroine; her undisclosed longing for attention, her deep-seated discontent with her static, ordinary life, her excitment with a different, exotic place; its sounds, sights and people.
“Cairo Time is essentially a postcard to Cairo; a picturesque, harmless unfinished love story between a woman, a man and a place. The numerous flaws of the film radically reduce the impact of the poignant, if predictable, last act. Instead of leaving a long-lasting impression on the viewers, the whole affair thus becomes forgettable.
“Cairo Time is screening on Wednesday, 9.30 pm, at Nile City cinema and on Friday, 9 pm, at Good News cinema. Nadda, who had an excruciating experience with the Cairo International Film Festival back in 2006, will not be in attendance.