Cairo Time is the title -- but Cairo time, as experienced by Juliette, a magazine editor who has arrived in the Egyptian capital to meet her husband for a vacation, is something new and seductive.
Cairo time seems languid and revealing, at least about oneself. It unfolds amid the Mediterranean heat and the environs of the ages. It transpires in the midst of a culture nearly as old as civilization and as modern as a cell phone. It reveals itself as something foreign, something exotic and something immensely appealing.
None of that is discussed, in Ruba Nadda's Cairo Time, a movie of many delights for the patient viewer. The chief delight, next to the travelogue beauty of the setting, is the performance of Patricia Clarkson as Juliette, the central character in this exceptionally romantic film.
Juliette arrives in Cairo, expecting to connect with her husband Mark, a diplomat. But she gets to her hotel to find a note from him, explaining that he's been called to the Gaza Strip to mediate a dispute and that he expects to be back in just a couple of days.
In his place, he has detailed a former employee and friend, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), to show her the city and help her deal with any problems she may have. But her only problem seems to be Mark's absence and the fact that, the longer she's by herself in Cairo, the less she seems to miss him.
Instead, she immerses herself in the culture, seeing it both as a tourist and as the guest of Tareq, a local. Is she lonely? Does she miss her husband? Maybe. But she also learns to enjoy her own company, to savor the experiences she is having by herself.
And, gradually, she finds herself drawn to Tareq, who is unmarried but hardly unattractive. She even tries to help him reconnect with an old lover -- and yet cannot deny the attraction she is feeling to him. Nor can he, though he considers her husband a good friend.
Nadda doesn't hurry her story -- or even make it particularly elaborate. If anything, Cairo Time is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, in its willingness to simply show people having feelings without talking about them. Yet, thanks to a marvelously nuanced performance by Clarkson, and a smoothly engaging one by Siddig, we feel both the heat of the Egyptian desert and the warmth that grows between these two people.
The film lives and breathes through Clarkson. With her butterscotch hair, her sleepy eyes and her quietly husky voice, she is a woman in full possession of herself -- but one who longs to let herself go, even if just a little. It's a stunning performance of many facets, in which Clarkson conveys as much in a look as many actresses struggle to reveal with overt histrionics.
The pyramids figure in the story as a symbol of Clarkson's marriage: She has promised her husband not to visit them until they can do it together. Yet they loom in the background, sometimes distant, sometimes tantalizingly close. They carry a weight, an imposing presence so strong that, even when you can't see them, you can feel them in all their various meanings.
Cairo Time seduces the viewer with its beauty, with its wealth of emotion that doesn't have to be discussed to be felt. It pulls you into another world so deeply that you are disappointed at having to leave it at the end.