Looking For Love On 'Cairo Time'? Prepare To Wait

Alexander Siddig, Patricia Clarkson

Pyramid Scheme: Cairo Time stars Patricia Clarkson as a New York fashion editor who comes to Egypt with her husband. But when circumstances throw them together, Juliette finds herself drawn to a lanky Cairo native (Alexander Siddig). Colm Hogan/IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption Colm Hogan/IFC Films

Cairo Time

  • Director: Ruba Nadda
  • Genre: Comedy, Drama and Romance
  • Running Time: 90 minutes
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and smoking.

With: Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Elena Anaya, Tom McCamus

Cairo Time is the kind of quietly romantic chamber piece one wants to speak up for, in part to support the small but growing band of Arab women making their mark on national cinemas both East and West. Writer-director Ruba Nadda, a Canadian of Syrian origin, means to take a scalpel to Western stereotypes of Arabs while opening up a conversation on gender — in a part of the world where it's hard to be an independent woman, let alone a woman of ambition.

As a brief encounter with buried desire, though, Cairo Time errs on the side of sluggish. Loosely informed by Nadda's own travels alone through Egypt, the movie stars Patricia Clarkson as Juliette, a New York fashion editor who arrives in the Egyptian capital for a holiday with her husband, Mark (Tom McCamus), a United Nations official working in Gaza. When Mark is indefinitely delayed by a crisis in the region, Juliette begins spending quality time with her husband's former security officer, Tareq (Sudanese-born actor Alexander Siddig), a lanky, conveniently unmarried man of tradition whose smoky bedroom eyes gradually exert their inevitable pull on his reluctant guest.

Very, very gradually. Clarkson is a subtly sultry actress who can imply eros with the tiniest flicker of an eyelid, but here she mostly seems to sit around waiting for direction. Juliette naps and sighs, sighs and naps, talks to hubby on the phone, languidly fends off intrusive Egyptian men on the street, and even appears to sleepwalk through the rites of tourism that are meant to awaken her to the promise of her animal self.

For all her discreet sneering at the local scene's "petroleum wives" — from whom she firmly distances herself — Juliette never transcends her role, somewhere between cut-rate Somerset Maugham and retro Merchant-Ivory, as the statutory Sad Blonde from the West; she "blends in" by graciously murmuring the word shukhran and announcing vague plans to run a piece in Vous magazine about the plight of Egyptian street children.

Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig i i

I Only Have Eyes For You: Looking for a steamy romance? Too bad -- this is about as close as Juliette and Tareq get. Colm Hogan/IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption Colm Hogan/IFC Films
Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig

I Only Have Eyes For You: Looking for a steamy romance? Too bad -- this is about as close as Juliette and Tareq get.

Colm Hogan/IFC Films

There's a wry, promising break in Nadda's otherwise clunky screenplay when, on a boat ride with Tareq, Juliette sardonically skewers the Western perception that Middle Eastern men "all have four wives." But this fleeting dig at Hollywood caricature soon drowns in assorted foreign-travel cliches: "We had lunch with Bedouins, it was great!" cries Juliette after being turned away from Gaza by reliably mean Israeli checkpoint guards. Whereupon she and Tareq resume making the rounds of camels, ruins and open-air markets while trading intense glances over tea and water pipes.

Nadda knows how to frame a picture-postcard shot, and her excruciatingly slow pacing is very likely meant to point up the difference between Juliette's workaholic life in America and the more leisurely rhythms of Tareq's day in his tea house, as well as ambiguities in their relationships to one another and their environment.

But there's a difference between ambiguity and nebulousness. It's not just the lack of plotting, which can be admirable in a movie that tells its story through atmospheric scene-setting. There's just next to no meaningful progression in this brief encounter, emotional or erotic. Whenever sex rears its indelicate head, it's time for Juliette and Tareq to go for a walk.

Yes, to the pyramids. Which do look lovely in the moonlight. But there comes a point in Cairo Time when one is overcome by longing for a coital intervention, already.

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