DVD Review: Mesmerizing ‘Cairo Time’ Quietly Achieves Greatness

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CHICAGO – While “Sex and the City 2” and “Eat Pray Love” failed to impress their female target audience this summer, a small art house treasure flew under practically everyone’s radar. It brilliantly delivered precisely what moviegoers expected from those mainstream turkeys, without a trace of cultural insensitivity or superficial excess. That film was “Cairo Time,” and it deserves to be discovered on the small screen.

Though I was careful not to overpraise this lovely morsel of a film during its initial release, it’s clear that “Cairo” is one of the year’s most under-appreciated gems. Arab Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda specializes in small-scale, intricately nuanced dramas, often featuring a romance between characters with different religious backgrounds, one of them being Islamic. Yet Nadda isn’t interested in pushing any incendiary buttons. If anything, her films break down cultural barriers by allowing their characters to connect on a human level without a hint of condescension.

HollywoodChicago.com DVD Rating: 5.0/5.0
DVD Rating: 5.0/5.0

Sarah Jessica Parker and Julia Roberts may have bigger fan bases, but Patricia Clarkson could act them both off the screen without breaking a sweat. She’s offered a showcase in “Cairo Time” most actresses her age aren’t afforded, and she makes the most of every last frame. Clarkson plays Juliette, the wife of a U.N. official, who finds herself with plenty of time on her hands while in Cairo. Her husband is busy organizing refugee camps in Gaza, and only has time for a few curt phone calls. As Juliette patiently waits for the opportunity to sightsee with her husband, she begins to develop an interest in his friend, a retired cop named Tareq (played by the marvelous Alexander Siddig, so memorable in “Syriana”). They take an instant liking to each other, and before long, Tareq enlists himself as Juliette’s guide around town. As their friendship blossoms, they gently subvert each other’s preconceptions about their respective backgrounds, while discovering that they have a great deal in common, including a deep-seated loneliness.

Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig star in Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time.
Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig star in Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time.
Photo credit: MPI Home Video

The plot unfolds more or less in the way one would expect, yet Nadda’s deft and subtle approach to the material is what makes it resonate more than the countless lesser pictures made from the same familiar elements. “Cairo Time” is basically “Leap Year” made by and for thinking people. The sweeping landscape, breathtakingly lensed by cinematographer Luc Montpellier, initially seems to be the central focus, as the film threatens to become a glorified travelogue. But the lush setting ultimately functions as a fitting framework for the touching relationship that develops between Juliette and Tareq.

Clarkson is one of the best character actresses in the business, but she’s rarely looked as ravishing as she does here. When her face blushes, she mirrors the giddy exhilaration of a first crush. When she cries, she looks like a wilted flower. There are more than a few striking similarities between this film and Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love,” which not only told the story of a married woman’s infatuation with another man, but also took the form of a love letter aimed at the formidable talent and under-appreciated beauty of its star, Tilda Swinton. Yet while “I Am Love” was an unabashed operatic melodrama, complete with outrageous plot twists and obtrusive music, Nadda’s film is a much more low-key mood piece, all the more effective because of its restraint.

There’s a wonderful moment when Juliette decides to invite Tareq to her room. Standard Hollywood formula requires such a set-up to culminate in a sex scene. But Nadda is smart enough to know that the most erotic and haunting scenes are less about action and all about feeling. The sequence in Juliette’s room plays out in silence, and is a miniature masterpiece of acting, timing and choreography, expressing the repressed passion thundering beneath the wordless angst.

Cairo Time was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Nov. 30, 2010.
Cairo Time was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Nov. 30, 2010.
Photo credit: MPI Home Video

“Cairo Time” is presented in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the picture quality is second-to-none. Among the disc’s enlightening array of extras is an alternate ending that is considerably more downbeat, and a heartfelt making-of featurette. It includes footage that the filmmakers shot when they journeyed outside of Cairo on weekends, and met with local villagers excited to be on camera. Nadda says that she “became a filmmaker to shed light on common misconceptions the West has about the Middle East.” Arab identity has been a prime topic of exploration for Nadda throughout her earlier work, which is sampled on this disc in four deeply intriguing short films made between 1997 and 2004. Her shorts often feature Arab characters in a western setting, a conspicuous juxtaposition that is flipped in “Cairo,” with an American character placed in an Arab locale. Filmmaking seems to be a family affair for Nadda, who regularly collaborates with her sisters Fadia and Laila (both siblings had key roles in “Cairo”). Viewing these shorts in light of Nadda’s later achievements is rather exhilarating, since they allow moviegoers to watch a fresh cinematic voice blossom before their eyes.

In a lively 26-minute Q&A at the Toronto Film Festival, where Nadda went on to win the Best Canadian Feature Film award, Clarkson says she was grateful to land the role of a romantic lead north of 40, while Siddig quips that it felt good to play someone who wasn’t intent on blowing up the White House. The most rewarding extra of all is the audio commentary with Nadda and Montpellier, who discuss the tremendous amount of production hurdles they faced by deciding to shoot the entire film in Cairo, from government censorship to a complete lack of control over natural locations. Their challenges make the film’s visual elegance all the more impressive, since Nadda opted to avoid a documentary-style look, despite the fact that literally none of the extras were actors. One of the most memorable stories involves the crew’s visit to a carpet factory, where cameramen discreetly captured footage of four-year-old child laborers (Nadda confesses she came close to punching the factory owner). Yet the commentary track is also filled with warm memories of the shoot, and the seductively low-key nature of the setting, the rhythms of which Nadda hoped to capture through the editing. “In the Middle East,” Nadda says, “they know how to enjoy a day.”

‘Cairo Time’ is released by MPI Home Video and stars Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Elena Anaya, Tom McCamus and Amina Annabi. It was written and directed by Ruba Nadda. It was released on Nov. 30th, 2010. It is rated PG.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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