Bittersweet and achingly beautiful, Cairo Time is about a woman and a man who spend a few days together in a teeming city and find themselves, maybe, falling in love - an affair that's never consummated, or even acknowledged, except for the halting, yearning look in their eyes. In another place, another time, perhaps . . . or perhaps not. But a connection has been made, one that won't slip away.
Written and directed by the Syrian-Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda, Cairo Time moves unhurriedly through the arcades and boulevards of the clamorous Egyptian capital, where a magazine editor from New York, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), has come to meet her husband, a U.N. official working in the Middle East. But a crisis in Gaza keeps Mark (Tom McCamus) from returning to Cairo for their appointed vacation; instead, he asks his former security officer, an Egyptian named Tareq (Alexander Siddig), to meet Juliette at the airport and make sure she finds her way to the hotel. The husband should be there in a day or two.
But as the Gaza crisis deepens, Juliette finds herself alone, and lonely, in this sprawling city, with its broad river and baking temperatures, its mosques and markets, its mix of ancient and modern, East and West. There's a wonderful moment when Juliette, newly installed in her hotel suite, drags an armchair onto her balcony to take in the sights, the sun, the sounds. The camera in Cairo Time is like Juliette at that moment: eager to observe, ready for surprise.
Clarkson, who walked off with Woody Allen's Whatever Works (as the nutty Southerner who goes to the Big Apple in search of her runaway daughter), has been handed a wonderfully drawn character: a smart, self-aware, complicated woman. The actress does a lot without seeming to do much at all; she's inside Juliette's head and heart - you can see it in the way she gazes from a car window, or angles her head as she poses a question, her lips curling into a careful smile.
Siddig's Tareq is a gentleman, a native accustomed to, and a little impatient with, Westerners visiting his country, armed with their tour books and sense of entitlement. He now runs a cafe where men sit and smoke, drink and play chess; he assumes the role of guide obligingly, seeing his city through the filter of this New Yorker. They walk. They talk. They take a boat ride. It's impossibly romantic.
As in David Lean's Brief Encounter, the suspense in Cairo Time comes from what doesn't happen between its pair of "lovers." And as with Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, part of the great joy to be taken from Cairo Time is in watching these two strangers as they stroll the streets of a remarkable city, getting to know each other, intimately.
Cairo Time: Take the time to see it.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.