Like a soft breeze as the sun slowly rises over the Great Pyramids, Cairo Time is a tale of rediscovery told through the eyes of Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson), the wife of a United Nations official. She travels to Cairo to meet her husband and instead falls in love – with its people, its culture and a different man.
Cairo Time opens as Grant journeys to Cairo to visit her husband after years of separation. Their children are out of college and starting their own lives. She is on vacation from her sixty-hour-per-week job, and when her husband cannot meet her as planned, she finally has time for herself. Grant begins to explore the country and adapts to its way of life. Along the way her path intersects with that of Tareq (Alexander Siddig), an ex-cop and friend of her husband. A recently retired Muslim man, Tareq takes it upon himself to protect Grant on her husband’s behalf and in doing so, opens her eyes to the wonders of Egypt.
Director Ruba Nadda is an Arab-Canadian filmmaker based in Toronto. According to the film’s official website, Cairo Time was shot on location in the White Dessert in 122° heat over the span of 25 days. While in pre-production, the filmmakers discovered that Canada had co-production treaties with eighty countries – and Egypt was not one of them. Luckily, the film’s producer knew the Irish producer of the critically acclaimed film Once and made Cairo Time a Canada/Ireland co-production, thus opening the possibility of filming in a third country.
Cairo Time’s story is unique in many respects. Unlike most Western romance films, it avoids the stereotypical “romantic” cities and instead chooses an underused Egyptian city. The film also lacks the usual Hollywood practice of exaggeration; Cairo is shown as it is. From the majestic Nile to the rundown buildings in plain sight, this film did not alter the city for the camera and as a result, proved all the more romantic for its honesty. For the viewer, Cairo’s beauty continually contrasted with the known great cities of architecture, such as Paris or Rome.
The film’s authenticity extended beyond the location to include the humanity of its characters. Neither over-styled nor romanticized; no one is stunningly beautiful, and neither Grant nor Tareq are the usual glamorous fare. Rather than portraying their roles as the typical twenty-somethings pretending to be in high school, Cairo Time depicts the romantic leads as mature characters who understand the complexity of life. In one scene, an Egyptian street child selling random items approaches Grant. Though Tareq explains to her that she should not feel obligated to buy anything, Grant pays the child. As Grant and Tareq later discuss the problem of Egyptian street children, Grant voices her conviction that though the children’s lives on the streets are horrible, no one seems to care. Tareq responds, “It’s more complicated than that.” This is a romance where sex is replaced with emotional metaphors, and all of these unique characteristics combine to create a film that is as fresh as it is realistic.
Tareq and Grant are a study in contrasts. Despite her relatively advanced age, Grant is naïve and believes she can change the world one act of kindness at a time. On the other hand, Tareq is worldly and understands that life is more complicated than Grant perceives. Together they show a wonderful stillness of movement that seems calm, relaxed and at peace.
However, there were a few less favorable aspects of this film. Certain cuts were choppy and interrupted the narrative flow; for example, one focused on the Egyptian sunrise before suddenly jumping to Grant and Tareq’s new adventure. As may be expected from a romantic film, Cairo Time had its share of a few clichéd lines and some confusing reactions filled with sudden forgiveness. The most critical problem, though, involved the main relationship between Grant and Tareq. Their affection was sudden and their chemistry not completely convincing: Their affair was quick and without an obvious cause. One could consider this as a pointed remark – love in real life is not always easy to trace. Yet it remains that the film’s dedication to realistic portrayals of people, places and events overshadowed its narrative capabilities.
Overall, Cairo Time is definitely worth seeing. If anything, the unique maturity of its central protagonists, coupled with the film’s exploration of an unusual setting, create a wonderfully distinctive film.