The travelogue function of movies is often denigrated, but it's one of the reasons people started going to them in the first place. Emily Dickinson wrote that "There is no frigate like a book." That was before they invented movies.
I was reminded of this movie-travelogue connection while watching "Cairo Time," starring Patricia Clarkson as Juliette, an American women's magazine editor who travels to Cairo to meet her husband Mark (Tom McCamus), a UN official, for a three-week vacation. The film, written and directed by Syrian-Canadian Ruba Nadda, isn't altogether satisfying on any level but it has one thing going for it that lifts it above its faults: It beautifully conveys what it's like for a traveler to suddenly enter into an alien environment. This is a movie that is not afraid to take its time and let the strangeness sink in.
I was reminded in some ways of Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," with Bill Murray as a has-been actor whiling away his jet lag in Tokyo. That film captured the groggy poetry of being caught in limbo, and so, in a few early sequences, does "Cairo Time."
Because Mark is detained in Gaza, Juliette is met at the Cairo airport by Tareq (Alexander Siddig), who had served for many years as her husband's security officer and now runs a coffee shop. In his 40s and unmarried, Tareq is a romantic figure with old school ways – but not so old school that he doesn't appreciate Juliette's independent streak.
Bored with waiting around for Mark, she takes to the streets only to discover that an unaccompanied Western woman is a magnet to roving males with grabby hands. She enters a cafe where Tareq is playing chess without realizing women are not allowed inside it. Everywhere she ventures surprises await.
Some of the surprises – like learning to smoke a hookah – she actually enjoys. As it becomes clear that the Godot-like Mark is going to be held up indefinitely, we wait for the inevitable romance to blossom between Juliette and Tareq. Nadda is rather old school herself, though. She films their time together, their evening walks and jaunts to the pyramids, as chaste communions. She's a bit of a tease – a tasteful tease.
Clarkson has never had a full-scale starring role like this one, and she deserves it. From the moment we first see Juliette, wilted after a long flight and wilting even more in the Cairo sun, we can sense the tremendous emotional reserves at her disposal. We don't need to be told that she is not altogether happy in her marriage or her job; we don't need it spelled out for us that Tareq represents, without her conscious awareness, a way back into her ardor before life wore her down.
Juliette has an easy sensuality that is, appropriately, often indistinguishable from lassitude. Despite the hecticness of the city, time slows down for her here, and when she's with Tareq, there are times when it seems to stand still altogether.
Siddig in some ways has the most difficult role in the movie. Tareq has to be both protector and dreamboat, approachable and off limits. It's a romanticized conception that Nadda doesn't do much to dispel, perhaps because she, too, seems in thrall to Tareq. The quaint simplicity of the quasi-courtship, which sometimes reminded me of that of Katharine Hepburn and Rosanno Brazzi in "Summertime," is a bit pallid.
But you may find, as I did, that the lovely twilit moments in this movie stay with one, and that summoning them up in your mind is like slowing down time. Grade: B (Rated PG for mild thematic elements and smoking.)
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