I didn’t expect to like Cairo Time. This effort from Québec-born, Toronto-resident filmmaker Ruba Nadda is the kind of indie some people praise as “subtle,” “adult” and “sensitive” and others damn with faint praise. The kind where we see many pretty things, but not a lot happens. (It’s a PG-rated love story, if that’s any indication.) And, for God’s sake, this movie is already available on DVD right across the border.
But if you see it on a small screen, you’ll miss the panoramas of a teeming, seething, sun-washed, ancient-modern city that Nadda unfolds for us. You’ll also miss the nuances of a memorable performance from Patricia Clarkson. Like Jeanne Moreau in La Notte, she can spend five minutes just staring at ravaged buildings, vacant lots and tired day laborers without boring the audience. Some actors go dead when they have no dialogue; others come alive. While I wouldn’t go so far as to compare Nadda to Antonioni, she, like him, gets a lot of mileage from imagery of a great actress wandering a great city.
But enough film history: Let’s talk about that love story. Clarkson plays Juliette, a New York women’s magazine editor whose husband works for the UN. When she comes to visit, he’s too busy running a refugee camp in Gaza to get away, so he sends his Egyptian friend Tareq (Alexander Siddig) to show her around the city. Tareq is tall, dark, handsome, soulful and single. Plus, he makes great coffee.
This is not a sun-drenched escape fantasy on the order of Under the Tuscan Sun, however. For one thing, Juliette is attached and has no standard Hollywood pretext for cheating on her husband. (She says she loves him and gives us no reason to doubt it.) For another, Tareq has his own issues. His pride forbids him to approach an old love (Amina Annabi) who is now a widow. He has a European-style fondness of leisure and a laissez-faire attitude toward the city’s uglier aspects, which shocks Juliette.
The New Yorker is mature and cosmopolitan. While some aspects of the city bother her, such as the male-only cafés and the harassment of uncovered women on the street, she makes the Sex and the City gals in Abu Dhabi look like a bunch of tweens shrieking, “OMG, check out that chick in the burkha!” (Actually, that’s pretty much literally what they did.) Still, Juliette can’t quite shed her American fix-it attitude. Tareq, by contrast, believes some things can’t be fixed, and this low-key conflict gives the movie a tension that’s cultural as well as sexual.
Given all the excellent reasons for these two people not to get romantically involved, plus the insufficient role of alcohol and other disinhibitors in their interactions, it’s hard to call Cairo Time a “romance.” Really, what it is is one of the rare realistic movies about attraction. There’s as much awkwardness here as chemistry, and body language always says more than words.
In its slight, deliberately minimalist way, Cairo Time shows an integrity rare even in the world of indies. If you want to see films that combine clear-sightedness about our global culture with passion, violence, sex and generally excessive behavior, I suggest the wonderfully wild works of Fatih (Head-On) Akin. (He has a new one coming.) But if you want to sink into a cross-cultural film that’s thoughtful without being harrowing, picturesque without being insipid, it could be Cairo Time.