Last night I went to see a screening of Cairo Time for my university newspaper (for which I am doing reviews). I had no idea what the film was about except it was a romance-drama set in modern Cairo. I’ve always wanted to visit Egypt, but I’ve never been a huge fan of romances, so my feelings and expectations were somewhat mixed. There were only 6 people in the theatrette (and half of them were likely guests of the reviewers), so clearly anticipation for this film is not huge.
As it turned out, Cairo Time was brutal. I don’t remember the last time I checked my watch so many times during a 90-minute film.
Directed and written by Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda, Cairo Time tells the story of a middle-aged woman named Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), who travels to Cairo to meet her husband Mark, a refugee camp worker for the UN. However, after she arrives she discovers that he is still stranded in Gaza, and consequently has to find ways to pass the time. Enter Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a local ex-police officer and old friend of her husband, who has retired and can spend lots of time with her.
And so begins an unusual courtship filled with plenty of lovely walks through the beautiful streets of Cairo and along its various landmarks; long, wistful glances and small, intimate moments. Will they or won’t they? Should they or shouldn’t they? Do we even care?
In my case, the answer was a clear and firm no.
I can definitely see why some people would appreciate this film. After all, Cairo is a wonderful city, and Cairo Time captures the beauty of the place with its wide, cinematic shots — on the Nile, across the desert, in the mosques, with the pyramids, and so forth. It was like a marketing campaign for Egyptian tourism (though I wonder why there were no tourists to be seen anywhere, including at the Sphinx and the pyramids). On top of that, there are some terrific yet subtle insights into Egyptian culture, such as their attitudes towards women, religion and poverty. There is an abundance of quiet moments of reflection and contemplation where the two perfectly acted leads stare into each other’s eyes with yearning and passion. There is a grand orchestral score interlaced with local music. It’s all about mood and the emotional complexities of living in a foreign and unfamiliar land. If that’s your cup of tea then this is the film for you.
Unfortunately, that type of stuff doesn’t get me going at all. Cairo Time, for me, is essentially a white middle-aged woman’s boring holiday in Cairo. We follow her around the streets. We see a few landmarks. She meets a few people. She talks to some of them. She spends some alone time with a local man. They connect for some reason (as if we didn’t see that coming). The end.
There is virtually no plot, no action, no suspense, no tension (apart from the sexual kind — and even that was fleeting). Nothing happens. It took 40 minutes (I know because I was looking at my watch) for the first meaningful event to take place, and when it did I thought, thank goodness, something is finally going to happen. And then, like a fart in a storm, it was gone, and back we went to sitting alone in the hotel room and wandering the streets. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a slow pace and not every film has to be action packed — but please, at least make it interesting, intriguing or compelling to watch.
The main problem for me was that there was nothing to look forward to in this film. It was so important for the audience to care about and invest emotionally in the relationship between Juliette and Tareq — but all I was thinking of was how awful these two people were. Why would I want this woman (who appears to have a different outfit every single day) to cheat on her supposedly loving husband while he is saving refugees for the UN? Why would I want this man to crack onto the wife of a dear old friend? But at the same time, part of me was thinking — well, at least something will happen!
Anyway, you may have gathered I was not in love with this film. And so you can imagine my utter disbelief when I discovered that Cairo Time had won “Best Canadian Feature Film” at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. And to rub salt into the wound, it had received generally positive reviews from critics, who thought it was “delightful”. But I stand by my opinion of this film. Technically it may have had some merit, but to be perfectly honest, it bored me to death.
1.5 stars out of 5
Cairo Time opens across Australia on 19 August 2010