“Cairo Time” takes us on a lovely stroll through a lushly romantic Cairo but frames that tour around an honest cross-cultural discussion, between an American woman tourist and a Syrian man who calls the city home. The film delights with its beautiful setting and poignantly romantic story but also because the characters’ discussions are so frank and real, gently exploring myths and realities on both sides, and their own lives, as they idle away time waiting for her husband to arrive.
At first glance, “Cairo Time” seems a simple romance but it is much more. It is a little film but a little gem both gently thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable. Two people adrift in a city and its cross-cultural theme evoke “Lost in Translation” but its setting means it explores a more challenging culture clash. This Canadian-made film is an excellent example of what is best in independent films — the courage to explore the nuances and the human side of cultural differences and clashes.
Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette, an American who is meeting her husband in Cairo for a vacation, planned as a romantic get-away for the new empty-nesters following their son’s recent marriage. But her husband Mark (Tom McCamus), who works for the U.N., is delayed due to a crisis in Gaza. He sends his recently-retired assistant Tareq (Alexander Siddig) to meet her and get her settled at the hotel. Expecting someone older, Juliette is a bit surprised to meet a handsome, courtly man her own age. As her husband’s arrival is postponed repeatedly, the restless Juliette finds herself exploring the city in the company of Tareq, and its culture through their talks.
Juliette is both curious and clueless about Cairo. Early on she makes the mistake of walking around the city unescorted, in Western attire with uncovered hair, which brings her some unwelcome male attention until a dignified, older shop owner intercedes and chases them away. When she starts out referring to her Cairo visit as “to the Middle East,” Tareq is prompted to wonder what the expression means. “Middle of what?” he asks, leading Juliette to re-phrase, that what she is exploring is Cairo, not the whole region. This early exchange sets up a playful back-and-forth between them, and Juliette counters by challenging Tareq’s assumptions, like his unquestioning acceptance of men-only coffee houses. None of this is heavy-handed, just interesting discussions between two thoughtful people exploring a storied city.
The scenery is certainly beautiful, both the romantic views of the pyramids and the attractive leads themselves. “Cairo Time” is a gorgeous film, with polished production values, lush settings and color-drenched costumes. Even Juliette’s hotel room and the view out of the window are wonderfully dreamy and romantic. Clarkson is lovely and graceful as warm-hearted Juliette, and Alexander Siddiq’s handsome Tarek is complex and likeable, but haunted by regrets.
Both Clarkson and Siddig are delightful, creating whole people with real inner lives and struggles. The gifted Clarkson has a long list of indie and mainstream roles, including in “Good Night and Good Luck,” and Siddiq is a rising star, in films such as “Syrianna.” As the tale unfolds against its beautiful backdrop, we feel them growing closer, culminating in unexpected feelings from both. Although the story is romantic and quiet, the well-crafted plot, real-world discussions and believable characters will appeal to both men and women.
“Cairo Time” is the romantic travel film the recent bigger-budget “Eat Pray Love” wanted to be, a film with heart and head, romance and realism. It is now showing at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.