Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Brief Encounters: Cairo Time

A mysterious city of great beauty and terrible ugliness, Cairo also has a rigid social system delineated by both gender and class. It is the sort of place where it helps to know someone with local knowledge. That is why a United Nations official asks his former colleague to look after his wife while he tends to a crisis. Both get more than they expected from their time together in Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time (trailer here), the winner of the best Canadian feature award at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, which opens this Friday in New York.

Juliette often intended to meet her husband Mark in Cairo, but life always intervened. Now that she finally made it, he is held up at his riot-plagued refugee camp. Fortunately, his friend Tareq is willing to show her the sites, but not the pyramids. As a symbol of marital fidelity, Juliette scrupulously saves those for Mark. Not surprisingly, when the two mature but attractive adults meet, they quickly develop a flirtatious rapport. However, as Mark’s delays continue, their relationship deepens into something perilously close to romance.

Nadda’s story follows in the elegant tradition of David Lean’s Brief Encounter and other chaste cinematic affairs. These characters take commitment seriously, so they do not fall into other people’s arms lightly. Indeed, for Juliette, a trip to the pyramids with another man would constitute nearly as great a betrayal as an amorous assignation. It is that mature sensibility that makes Cairo such an engaging film.

Truly, the Egyptian city sparkles through Luc Montpellier’s lens, but Nadda has not penned a starry-eyed love letter. As Juliette learns first-hand, it can be a frightening place for women to walk the streets alone, even in broad daylight. There are also numerous places explicitly off limits to women, including Tareq’s coffee bar, but of course she knows the owner, so she has an ‘in.”

Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig (best known as Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) hit all the right notes as Juliette and Tareq. Their graceful chemistry make viewers want them to be together, though we know they ultimately never can. In a way, Cairo bears certain similarities to Lost in Translation, bestowing unexpected depth on a chance meeting, while maintaining a wistful vibe throughout. Yet unlike the annoyingly self-indulgent characters of Sophia Coppola’s film, Juliette and Tareq are self-aware, self-denying grown-ups. As a result, spending time with them is a quiet pleasure.

Nadda’s gentle rhythms and striking visuals make for a seductive cinematic blend. Never loud or crass, Cairo is an adult film, in the classiest sense. Warmly recommended, it opens this Friday (8/6) at the IFC Center.