If you’re looking for an antidote to the Middle Eastern excesses of “Sex and the City 2,” Ruba Nadda’s modest, restrained little movie will certainly do the trick. As the title suggests, “Cairo Time” proceeds at a pace reflecting the more relaxed, even dilatory ambience of the place where the story’s set than the rushed tempo characteristic of western life.
And the simplicity of the story mirrors the steady rhythm with which it’s told. Patricia Clarkson, holding her energy and emotions in check, plays Juliette, the wife of a United Nations official overseeing a Gaza refugee camp who travels to the Egyptian capital to spend some time with her long-absent husband Mark. Unfortunately, he’s delayed by a crisis in the Palestinian territory, and so she’s met at the airport, and then shown about the city, by a recently-retired aide of his, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), who’s taken over his late father’s coffeehouse. Naturally, the two gradually develop affection for each other that only just misses crossing into physical romance.
In many respects “Cairo Time” is primarily a travelogue, following Juliette and Tareq as they tour the city. As such, though, it’s rather an airbrushed portrait of Cairo, as the poorer, more squalid areas aren’t included. (Trips to the pyramids and voyages down the Nile are much more photogenic.)
But it’s also an introduction to a culture with which most western audiences will be unfamiliar, with Juliette serving as a surrogate as she gets unwanted attention from men in the street, or misunderstands the decorum of Tareq’s coffeehouse, or accompanies him to a local wedding—as well as to the political situation, in an episode in which Juliette, taking a bus to Gaza, impulsively accepts an envelope that a young Palestinian woman asks her to deliver to her lover (something that Tareq eventually helps her do). And it gently stirs the story of their increasing mutual attraction into the mix, so successfully—thanks to the quietly affecting performances by the stars, that when Mark (Tom McCamus) unexpectedly shows up at the close, you might find it a bit of a letdown.
The film is cleanly if unspectacularly photographed by Luc Montpellier, with dollops of music, including pop songs, added to the soundtrack to increase the local color.
“Cairo Time” rambles, and it feels longer than it is. But while slight, it has the texture and mood of a nice short story, and comes as a relief after so many loud, blustery Hollywood pictures.