reviewed by Marc Glassman
Ruba Nadda, director and script. Starring: Patricia Clarkson (Juliette), Alexander Siddig (Tareq), Elana Anaya (Kathryn), Tom McCamus (Mark), Amina Annabi (Yasmeen)
The winner of the best Canadian feature at this year’s TIFF is an old fashioned romantic charmer. Cairo Time has all the elements that made movies so popular decades ago. There’s an exotic locale, a beautiful lonely woman and a sweet tempered sophisticated man to quietly woo her. This Canadian film is a rarity—one clearly intended to connect with audiences that enjoy character driven dramas. Now that it’s in general release, one hopes that filmgoers throughout the country will embrace the film.
Ruba Nadda, whose previous film Sabah dealt with the difficulties a traditional Muslim woman would have accepting love from a Canadian Christian man has reversed roles in Cairo Time. Juliette, marvelously played by Patricia Clarkson in a quiet, more subtle mood than usual, is a Zoomer—a 40 something woman who definitely has a Zip. A Canadian, she travels to Cairo to spend romantic time with her husband Mark, a diplomat. When she arrives in Egypt, though, she’s met by Tareq, an old friend of Mark’s who now runs a popular café.
It turns out that Mark is dealing with a crisis in Gaza and has asked his handsome friend to show Juliette the glories of Cairo. Set up nicely by Nadda, the film moves slowly through the burgeoning relationship between the Egyptian man and the Canadian woman. At first Juliette assumes that she can wander unaccompanied through the streets of Cairo but she soon learns the truth—blonde North American women are too appealing to Egyptian men for her to go solo. Tarequ becomes Juliette’s benefactor, negotiating the markets, cafés and mosques of Cairo with her.
Juliette in turn tries to help Tareq to reunite with his love from university days, Yasmeen, who is now widowed. One of the film’s highlights is the wedding of Yasmeen’s daughter, which the two attend: one gets a sense of the splendid rituals that unite Muslim societies throughout the world.
Indeed, Nadda’s greatest accomplishment is her rendering of life in Cairo. Although Nadda has a modern Canadian sensibility and was born in Montreal, her appreciation of Egypt and the rest of the Middle East is profound. The cinematography by Luc Montepellier in Cairo Time is stunning but it’s in service of a director who understands the buildings and people of Egypt’s great metropolis not as postcards but as authentic representations of an ancient culture.
Nadda is first and foremost a storyteller and she makes sure that Cairo Time is always about the potential romance between Tareq and Juliette. Played out by Clarkson and Siddig, one sees the attraction between the two—and their profound discomfort over the mutual appeal. Well judged by Nadda, Cairo Time never betrays her characters or their ethical values. She has made a mature film and a beautiful one. Rarely has TIFF given its Canadian feature award to a more deserving artist.