Monday, September 06, 2010

A Kiss is Not Just a Kiss...As "Cairo Time" Goes By

Quietly, and with zero fanfare, “Cairo Time” has slipped past several flashier contenders to become my favorite film of the year thus far. Granted, the year’s still young (infantile, actually) in movie release terms. And I have to admit that part of the reason I responded so strongly to “Cairo Time” was the element of surprise: it wasn’t on my radar at all, and unexpected pleasures are often the sweetest. There's more to it than that, however. What distinguishes “Cairo Time” isn’t its subject matter, which is fairly rote (WASPy lady, visiting an exotic foreign land, finds herself drawn to attractive native host), but the extraordinary delicacy with which it handles the interactions between its two central characters.

Much of the credit, though not all, goes to the actors: the great Patricia Clarkson as Juliette, an American in Cairo to meet her husband, Mark, a U.N. employee, and Alexander Siddig (“Syriana,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “24”) as Tareq, a former colleague and friend of Mark’s who, when the latter is held up in Gaza, picks Juliette up at the airport, delivers her safely to her hotel, and politely offers her whatever assistance she may need. As Mark’s detention continues indefinitely and Juliette finds her Western looks and clothes attracting unwelcome attention on the streets, she solicits Tareq’s services as guide and de facto bodyguard. Tareq obliges, and an unlikely friendship—with a hint, if not a promise, of something more—develops between them over the course of her stay.

The dynamic between Tareq and Juliette is somewhat reminiscent of “Lost in Translation,” crossed with “Before Sunrise/Before Sunset,” and perhaps a touch of “In the Mood for Love”—all movies I love, so it’s no wonder I loved this one, too. As in those films, communication is as much unspoken as spoken, if not more so: a gesture, an expression, a seemingly casual touch conveys volumes that can’t be articulated in words. And as in those films, we see how much the connection between two strangers depends on the special and peculiar circumstances that both bring them together and pull them apart. Part of what makes that connection so believable here is how wholly unanticipated it is on both sides, and yet how organically it unfolds. Juliette isn’t suffering from a midlife crisis: a successful women’s magazine editor with two grown children, she seems quite happily married and content with both her professional and personal life. Still, there are moments, calibrated with wonderful subtlety by Clarkson, when she reveals not so much boredom as a certain susceptibility to the lure of the new—new experiences and sensations that not only relieve her temporary enforced solitude but lift her out of the comfortable groove of her everyday life. While Tareq remains more mysterious, as portrayed by Siddig (so good in “Syriana,” so different yet equally good here) he’s far more than a cipher or mere projection of Juliette’s desires. Underneath his courtesy and charm, he reveals signs of a man who’s suffered more disappointments than Juliette, but doesn’t dwell on them—which makes the fleeting glimpses he offers into his heart all the more poignant.

"Cairo Time" has a lovely, seductive languor that gives the title a romantic, slightly wistful significance. The time that Tareq and Juliette have together—mere days for them, and just over an hour and a half for us—lingers luxuriously without losing its fundamentally ephemeral quality. If it all feels a bit dreamlike, that's by design. Never has Cairo looked more inviting: director Ruba Nadda casts the city in a warm, flattering glow that burnishes its incredible beauty while excluding, for the most part, its less appealing aspects. We see Juliette’s changing attitude towards both Cairo and her companion reflected in her attire, which gradually shifts from crisp shirts and khakis to alluring pastel and floral print dresses that cling softly to her body; even her features seem to soften, and not just because of the lighting.

Still, Nadda doesn't let the atmospherics cloud her view, or ours, of the two protagonists or their potential as a couple. The spark between them feels more like a slow burn, kept in check by their respective situations and their own personalities. I won’t give away the outcome of the “will they/won’t they” question, other than to say that the consummation of their attraction feels exactly, poetically right. Their shared experience is their gift to one another, and to the audience drawn into their web of conflicting desires.



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