Cairo Time is an appealingly modest brief-encounter picture. Patricia Clarkson is Juliette, a gorgeous middle-aged journalist vacationing in Cairo, awaiting the return of her husband, who’s stuck in Gaza under mysterious circumstances. Former bodyguard and good friend Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a hunky, poetic local retiree with lonely eyes, is hired by Juliette’s husband to act as tour guide—and, perhaps, as distraction from his prolonged absence. After a few awkward, polite exchanges, Juliette and Tareq inevitably find themselves holding their casual glances and touches a bit too long for comfort as the beautiful, dangerous Egyptian countryside stirs their imaginations.
That somewhat purplish plot accounting is appropriate as Cairo Time plays to our silliest daydreams of stumbling upon that ideal someone at the least expected, most absurd time in our lives; the film is the umpteenth incarnation of that universal fantasy of a romance that isn’t allowed by time to succumb to the everyday reality of actual relationships. On these terms, Cairo Time is largely successful: Clarkson and Siddig have considerable chemistry, and writer-director Ruba Nadda knows just how long to hold a pregnant sexually charged pause or gesture.
Nada is less confident with the political undertones, as this is also a film in which a character’s literal displacement is meant to parallel larger cultural rifts. Juliette is privileged, white, and proudly ignorant of the sort of sexism and political tension that we associate with the culture that we generically label as the “Middle East.” (Tareq has a good line early on: “What is this Middle East?”) Juliette wanders streets so that easy points can be scored on cultural mores alien to her, and these sequences give Cairo Time an awkward preachy aftertaste that’s not uncommon in, say, the films of Mira Nair. Nair, big difference though, questions her culture, however bluntly, from the inside out. Nadda is more careless; her apparent frustration with this alien world clouds her empathy and disrupts an otherwise pleasant afternoon romance. But Nadda is still a filmmaker to watch; she’s confident with actors and with visuals that communicate her characters’ interior turmoil.
The visual presentation faithfully preserves the contradicting beauty and ugliness that prevents Cairo Time from being just another dull travelogue. The contrasts—the grit and cracks of the pyramids, the supernatural clarity of the Nile, the chaotic clutter of the city streets—are clearly, gorgeously detailed. The sound mix is also vividly precise, particularly in the clarity of the multi-layered street and bar scenes.
The Toronto Film Festival Q&A and making-of featurette are traditional studio puff spots. The deleted scene is somewhat more interesting than most, as it shows Juliette kissing her husband—somewhat obligingly—back in their room upon his return. This sequence is the one direct depiction of overt affection in the film, and the decision to cut this brief moment is understandable and probably even correct, as it disrupts the cloud of hesitation that hangs over the film. The deletion of the scene speaks to the specificity of the tone that Ruba Nadda was after, and that she largely achieved. The commentary is conversational and fun, but not all that interesting. The short films, mostly made by Nadda during her teens, are rough, experimental, and largely tedious, but they illustrate preoccupations with cultural barriers that would come to inform Cairo Time. The extras are modest, uneven, and occasionally interesting, like the film itself.
Cairo Time is an uneven, well-acted romance that reveals a promising new director.