A key scene from writer-director Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident pivots on a joke that stingingly indicts the apparatus that gives power to fascists. Noredin (Fares Fares), a police officer investigating the death of a young woman at a Cairo hotel, arrives at the home of the woman’s good friend, Gina (Hania Amar), a working girl with whom he’s carrying on a casual affair. Given that Gina is, at the moment, entertaining two men who probably wouldn’t want to know that they’re in the company of a police officer, she introduces Noredin to the men as the country’s most successful maker of toilets, and that he even supplied one to Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak.
Gina’s clients, the sort of men who’re prone to ingratiating themselves with bigwigs, don’t even pretend to have heard of Noredin, perhaps because it would mean admitting that they, too, have been shat upon. As for Noredin, if the joke is no skin off his back it’s because there’s a sense that Saleh and Fares have conceived of the character as a blank slate. That is, to be fair, by design, as Noredin has been purposefully cut from the cloth of many men of noir: He’s a man with his fingers in too many pies, neither a saint nor a devil, seemingly biding his time until he’s given something to care about more than the ghost of his dead wife, who, it must be said, he doesn’t think of very much.
The Nile Hilton Incident hums with a subtle tension whenever it makes unmistakable how politics is an interwoven part of life. At one point, the young Sudanese maid, Salwa (Mari Malek), who was working at the hotel at the time of the film’s central murder escapes the scene of another crime and walks straight into a public protest in order to provoke her arrest. To live another day, she makes the split-second decision to place her trust in the police who are as untrustworthy as the criminals they’re charged with catching. At its most nonchalantly queasy, as when Noredin tells his colleagues to bugger off for staring at Gina during a sit-down with the woman at his police station, the film blurs the line between decency and depravity.
One may wish that the film were less content to position the events leading up to Egypt’s 2011 revolution as mere punctuation marks to pivotal moments in a story that’s overly familiar from countless noirs. And yet, the essential feel of the film, which is strikingly grounded in a lived-in specificity, is scarcely rote. It’s in Salwa and her neighbors catching rainwater with plastic soda bottles that have been cut in half, and in a repairman nervously hoping that Noredin won’t mind that his TV set, while back in action, will only play Italian channels. The Nile Hilton Incident may not reimagine our sense of how the ties that bind bad men are rewritten in times of war, but it nonetheless gives a casually electric sense of how hardscrabble lives persist in such times.