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RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes
• “Making of’ feature
• Toronto Film Festival Q & A
• Theatrical trailer
• Four short films
Unrequited love between 40-somethings in the romantic city of Cairo.
Patricia Clarkson (Shutter Island, The Station Agent) and Alexander Siddig (Syriana, 24, Deep Space Nine)
When fashion magazine editor Juliette lands in Cairo to meet her U.N. official husband for a long awaited vacation instead she is met by a handsome Egyptian man. Tareq, a retired U.N. official, trusted friend of Juliette’s husband, has come to take care of her until her husband can get out of a Middle Eastern hotpot, hopefully alive. Love unexpectedly blooms in the dessert.
Canadian-born director Ruba Nadda who is of Syrian heritage has written a love letter to the city of Cairo in the guise of a love story between an unlikely pair, married Juliette and lifelong bachelor Tareq. With the beauty of Cairo as a breathtaking backdrop, Nadda makes a valiant attempt to take us on Juliette’s journey through a strange land.
Although there is an immediate spark between the two main characters, they begin as awkward acquaintances and end as awkward un-lovers. While this was a darling of the 2009 film festival circuit, the story was plodding and did little to make me root for the star-crossed couple. Patricia Clarkson is so understated she all but becomes invisible as a fish way out of water, a westerner in the very foreign and repressed land. Her character is plagued by her lack of knowledge of Egyptian life and customs and seems to know nothing delights of the country and its attractions other than the promise she made to her husband that she wouldn’t see the Pyramids without him. She’s surprised when she’s accosted on the street by young Egyptian men. She’s blonde and wearing what the locals would consider immodest western dress (no hijab in sight). She seeks out Tareq at his men-only coffee shop and thus begins the budding of their odd relationship. They walk the city as only a woman accompanied by a man can, go for a sail down the Nile and visit a local jeweler. At one point, Juliette, tired of waiting for her husband to join her, she takes a bus to the Gaza. On the very short trip, interrupted by military blockade, she meets a young woman who implores her to deliver a letter to her lover back in Cairo. This is one of the ‘side’ stories which takes the tourist and her unexpected guide to a carpet factory, a.k.a. sweatshop where prepubescent girls work for an unseen monster in order to save for their weddings. Siddig in turn has his moments as a chivalrous, old-fashioned Egyptian native. At first disinterested and then seemingly fascinated by a middle aged American woman, he introduces her to the hookah and the best coffee in the world (in his shop of course) and takes her to the wedding of his lost love’s daughter. Why didn’t he marry the love of his life? Well, they were just university kids, he an Egyptian Muslim and she an Armenian Catholic. Even though Yasmeen is widowed and available, it somehow never occurs to Tareq to rekindle this old flame instead opting to long again in vain for another unavailable woman.
Not really surprising is the fact that Nadda wrote the part of the courtly object of Juliette’s affections for Siddig. He plays the character richly with nuance and poise. No wonder to any woman why she’s take more than a bit of a shine to him.
There are a few genuine moments where the film’s sensitive bent is fun to watch, such as a scene in Tareq’s coffee shop when Juliette challenges him to a game of chess which he of course loses while surrounded by his cohorts and the sweet and funny scene when he introduces her to the classic water-pipe. Incongruities abound including how Juliette somehow finds her way into a mosque alone.
Although I must admit to feeling some joy in seeing a 40-something man falling for a 40-something woman, that joy was mitigated by failure of the film to hold my interest.
Nadda and long time collaborator and cinematographer Luc Montpellier paint a magical picture of a romantic land but fail, in my opinion to make us care about the people in their story.
Should you come across this DVD in your travels, see it for the handsome and charming Alexander Siddig, wonderful travelogue and do see the four short films, particularly Aadan.
Director’s commentary with Nadda and Montpellier. Alternate ending included is as most all alternate endings/deleted scenes of films, which is to say totally understandable by its deletion.