A movie review and interviews from the Ischia Global Film & Music Festival premiere of CAIRO TIME by Timothy E. RAW
This summer, Inception isn't the only film capable of provoking worthwhile discussion through being daring enough to acknowledge the intelligence of its audience. With the enchanting, Cairo Time, writer/director Ruba Nadda set out to make something that would have people believing in, and talking about love again. Not only has she exceeded her own expectations, but in an otherwise lackluster year at the movies, her new film has re-affirmed my belief in the cinema of 2010 and the possibility that old fashioned romances like this still have the chance of charming and appealing to a sizable audience, otherwise faced with an over-saturation of disingenuous, mean-spirited, misogynistic ‘chick flicks'. Time and again these films pass themselves off as romantic, whilst rigorously sticking with the formulaic, twenty-something teaming of a humorless and uptight shrew, with a goofy, lovable, hot bod, both of whom don't know the first thing about real love. Usually these chalk-and-cheese caricatures of human behaviour are only shoehorned together because the plot description demands it. Here we get to watch two people slowly fall in love in a fashion so natural as to seem inevitable.
What puts Cairo Time on the map as so much more than passive entertainment and elevates it into the rarified realm of a true cinematic "experience" is not just the alluring locales or the sublimely modulated performances from its two leads but Nadda's insistence on a classic, character-driven type of filmmaking that's more Brief Encounter than Lost in Translation and all but lost to us in 2010.
Hot on the heels of the groundswell of enthusiasm for Inception's bold originality in yet another summer of endless remakes and sequels, the message is loud and clear: studio executives have no excuse whatsoever for the dumbing down of our entertainment, audiences want original stories they can actually engage with and here we have a tale of re-ignited passions that like Christopher Nolan's blockbuster, doesn't infantilize the viewer but instead has the respect to treat you as a discerning member of its audience.
So, what is the film about and where can I see it? How come we've heard nary a murmur of it in the UK?
This weekend (August 6th), Cairo Time opened in New York and LA as well as rolling out into twenty-three other states across the US. As she emphasizes in our interview below, Ruba Nadda is certain the film's success in America will determine its fate in other territories. For the US reader then, consider this article a call to arms. It may have only just recently played at the Ischia Global Film & Music Festival*, but luckily for the internet-savvy UK reader, the film has been available on Canadian Blu-Ray since January.**
So once you've seen Inception a second or third time, you can get truly decedent at the cinema, or from the comfort of your own home and treat yourself to another film that doesn't insult your intelligence, inviting you to read into the unspoken and the off-screen. Hard to believe in the current climate that such films are still just barely existing, yet here's one readers of the site should ignore at their peril.
Cairo Time may not feature mind-bending wire-work stunts in the architecture of the mind, but it is every bit the special effects movie with its pyrotechnic pairing of Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig, two actors so finely attuned to their characters that the fire ignited between them is a perfectly controlled blaze, reticently smoldering throughout the film's duration rather than burning up in confessional expositionary monologues in the third act.
Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette, a journalist who sets off on a series of butterfly effect, life-altering awakenings when her aid-worker husband is unexpectedly detained by the breakdown of negotiations in hostile Palestine and fails to meet her for a long-time-planned vacation in Cairo.
The other half of this two-hander is, Alexander Siddig as Tareq. A retired cop, still reeling from a failed relationship, he finds himself suddenly entrusted as Juliette's custodian, being a work acquaintance of her husband and friend to the family.
There is an instant attraction between the two and hints of a shared history I won't divulge here. Suffice it to say that while the actors may be playing their cards to the chest, Nadda's camera rewards the viewer, registering every ripple and quiver on faces that yearn for something more and the tell of their bluff is all too evident.
The continued delaying of the Cairo trip by her husband and the way Tareq so readily assumes Juliette's shadow (at once subservient and challenging), signify a wife and mother dissatisfied with her marriage and the limited, conservative lifestyle that comes with it. This is further compounded by the way in which this foreign land is able to so utterly overwhelm Juliette. For a journalist, it at first appears to strain credibility that she is this much of a fish-out of water amongst the clamor and hustle of Cairo's sun-dappled streets. Clearly, she's not a travel writer but nevertheless, Patricia Clarkson has always projected an innate tough-cookie-when-called-upon quality in her characters, not present here when Juliette has to deal with the unwelcome male attentions cast upon her for not covering her head, being blue-eyed, milky skinned and blond. It's only later that you come to realize that having buried her hopes for romance, Juliette is caught so off guard when desire is struck alight -- very much against her will by Tareq -- that all her usually dependable journalistic instincts have deserted her. Nadda never once has to demean us with spoon fed explanation when she is gifted with a performer of Clarkson's experience, who only needs so much as a pasted on smile to make clear the emotional turmoil underneath her gentle demeanor. Whenever the couple share so much as a tentative glance or Traeq is bold enough to put his hand on hers, Juliette looks as though the weight of all her regrets could cause that smoldering fire to go up in flames.
Rubba Nadda's previous film, Sabah: A Love Story, was about a middle-aged woman struggling to find a love that would set her free. Patricia Clarkson's Juliette is a middle-aged woman emerging from a semi-conscious state, to a state of total awareness, as to the disappointing trajectory her life has taken. When Tareq takes her on a day trip to the pyramids we quickly discern her dislocation is as much emotional as it is geographic. Through time spent with Tareq, Juliette discovers an agency and independence she never knew she had and with this newfound knowledge comes an undeniable sadness and solitude; hers is a freedom that's arrived too late. To embrace it would be to isolate herself from her loved ones back home and everything to which she's anchored her life. Wrestling with this predicament, Juliette's struggle is whether or not to act on her desires for emotional and sexual satisfaction. My own satisfaction came from the fact that Nadda in her last two films, has celebrated the blossoming of middle-aged romance and I can only hope she'll continue to explore the crisis's of characters in the same age bracket in future projects. The stakes of the "will they make it?" question are of course exponentially higher given the combined life experience of two people at that age, who have so much more to risk and lose than a dozen lotharios played by Ashton Kutcher. Between the slim pickings of Jackie Brown and Last Chance Harvey, such last-chance-at-love films are depressingly few and far between in modern cinema, so Nadda deserves due credit for creating these characters.
The same questions raised by Juliette's struggle are asked but never resolutely answered about Tareq. Will someone who is so circumspect in public and just as loyal to Juliette's husband, act on his burgeoning desires? Is that even an option given the dignity and sense of honour so important to his Arabic culture? Has he mistaken mutual understanding for love, or could Juliette just be a rebound as he attempts to get back on his feet?
Alexander Siddig is clearly the equal performer of Clarkson, not only in how even-handed their scenes are together but in how he is able to just as effectively imply that his character is all of the above and none of them at the same time. Clarkson, someone who is always the gentle center of grace in anything she stars in, here for the first time plays off someone whose natural persona brings these same qualities to the screen. It is that rare and special pleasure to look upon the faces of two actors, who are clearly channeling their best real-life qualities through the characters they're portraying. Although a work of fiction, their work in every scene never feels anything less than real and that's what makes their guarded dinner dates and strolls through the plaza's maddening crowds so compelling.
Siddig in particular, is a perfect fit for the material (the role was written specifically for him) and his warm, tender-hearted exuberance is an exact match for the type of story Nadda is telling, harkening back to David Lean, both in terms of quietly dignified romantic sweep and her lavish flair as a visual stylist. Remarkably, given the low budget and the twenty-five day shooting schedule, there is no sense of the guerilla filmmaker at work here; the widescreen artistry is as stately and immaculately framed as the best of Merchant-Ivory. Within that widescreen frame, the details ring true and authentic. Nadda brings her considerable skills as a short storyteller to bear, deploying and marshalling sights, sounds and smells with an exacting vividness impossible to resist; her evocation of the heady balm of exotic summer is one you actually feel the sun's heat behind.
Like Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, the pair are always outside and on the move, but unlike those youthful fumblings toward higher plateaus of quixotic connectivity, Juliette and Tareq stay outdoors, purposely it seems, to keep others between them and curb their growing attraction. Going to Juliette's hotel room would force a more direct conversation that neither is ready for. When common decency demands Tareq escort Juliette to the very place they've been avoiding, this is just one of many numerous opportunities where the script manages to resist surrendering to bathos, and the film stands firm in this register right up to its final moments, which surprise with a searing melancholy that hangs in the air and sticks with you long after the lights come up.
Inception may have "saved the summer", but with Cairo Time, Ruba Nadda makes it one to remember. Hers may not be an "event film", but all the same it is most certainly the film event of 2010 so far.
Exclusive interview with Cairo Time director Ruba Nadda, conducted at the
2010 Ischia Global Film & Music Festival by Timothy E. RAW.
Exclusive interview with Cairo Time leading man Alexander Siddig, conducted at the
2010 Ischia Global Film & Music Festival by Timothy E. RAW.