One of the promises of the independent cinema, seldom fulfilled, is that it take up the jobs abdicated by today’s Hollywood. The job taken up in Cairo Time is, no condescension intended, that of the women’s film. (The inexact synonym, chick flick, always intends condescension.) And taken up, at that, with consummate skill and invisible effort, making it look easy. Written and directed by a woman — not at all a prerequisite of the genre — and a new name, the Arab-Canadian Ruba Nadda, it recounts the first visit to the Middle East of a contented American working wife, now facing Empty Nest Syndrome with two children flown, planning to meet up with her husband in Cairo to see the pyramids together. The husband, a United Nations emissary overseeing a refugee camp in Gaza, is detained incommunicado in circumstances of uncertain danger, and in his stead he has dispatched a former employee of his, a native Egyptian who in retirement has inherited his father’s coffee shop (best coffee in the world if he says so himself), to look after the woman in the meantime, show her around, keep her company. As the days stretch out indefinitely, with attendant loss of bearings, a bond forms between them and ever so imperceptibly tightens, notwithstanding the hovering presence of a widowed old flame of the man, plainly still interested in him. You can see how it all would happen. You can believe it implicitly. In time, a slight infidelity will be committed (those pyramids won’t wait forever), but how great a one is open for discussion, although apparently not open for it between reunited spouses.
In synopsis it sounds like nothing. In actual experience it feels like one of the foremost things the cinema was made for, taking us away, setting us down, putting us deeply into a scene — an exotic scene for extra measure — with a knowledgeable, alert, sensitive, and subtle eye to guide us. It combines, and completely merges, the quite separate attractions of the travelogue and the tearjerker. On the first front the filmmaker misses no trick: the lit pyramid looming in the distance over an evening party, or unlit in daylight over a golf course; the commercial belly dancer; the dromedary; the lunarscape rock formations; the water pipe (“Oh, it’s apple!”); the mosque; the bazaar; the boat ride on the Nile; the carpet weaving; the traditional wedding. A full and satisfying itinerary, sometimes intensely subjective, as in the overhead point-of-view shots from the heroine’s hotel balcony, or in her solo stroll through the streets in short-sleeve blouse and knee-length skirt, drawing men like flies and daggerish glares from hijab-wearing women. Clearly she has much to learn.
The second front, the warming relations between man and woman, is attended with no less thoroughness and intentness and far less roaming. There is, despite the differences that need to be noted and examined, no cumbersome ideological baggage for them to lug, as in, say, Sally Potter’s insufferably pretentious Yes, no great barriers, no terrible tensions, no cultural soul-searching. The film offers up no thesis, simply two people. These are decidedly civilized people, urbane and gracious, people who can talk to one another with tact and candor and eloquence, photographed the whole while in comfortable, roomy images that, even as they let in plenty of the environment, refuse to push the pair upon one another or upon the spectator. The woman in question is “indie” queen Patricia Clarkson (in the Hollywood of yore it might have been Joan Fontaine or Deborah Kerr), who, for all the beauty of her plangent voice and soulful eyes, does not cut herself off from the common run of womankind, blinding us with radiant celebrity, untouchable pulchritude. She seems a real woman. The man, the long-stemmed, loose-limbed, neatly bearded Alexander Siddig, is no Omar Sharif, which is to say no cornball matinee idol, but rather a suave, discreet, old-world gentleman who succeeds — as he must for the film to succeed — in being irresistibly attractive. We come to care a great deal about these two, without having a clear rooting interest. Uncertainty sees to that. (We’ve not yet met the husband; we’ve only heard the wife on the phone with him.) A younger European woman on the scene, having had intimate relations with an Arab, weighs in with cautionary testimony: great lover but eventually possessive. “It always comes out.” Will it have a chance to come out in some form here? The emotional climax — a premature climax, so to speak, abrupt, disruptive — can jerk a tear without half seeming to try. In under ninety minutes the film fully achieves the task it set itself, a task bigger and tougher than it might look.
Eat Pray Love, by a convenient coincidence, is what passes nowadays in the mainstream, however infrequently, as a women’s film, a self-affirming, boastful, best-selling piece of nonfiction Chick Lit transformed into a two-and-a-quarter-hour blandishment for a major star. It is a virtual photographic negative of Cairo Time. Whatever the other does right, this one does wrong. While there is a lot of sightseeing on the heroine’s Search for Self (“I want to go someplace where I can just marvel”), Italy for food, India for meditation, Indonesia for romance — the three I’s on the road to the central, the egotistical I — it is all of the whirlwind variety, flitting, dizzying, bustled along with dictatorial pop songs, opera aria, indigenous instrumentals, and shot, what’s more, in mushy focus and muddy color. (Ryan Murphy of Running with Scissors, director and whip-cracking tour guide.) We’re probably lucky to be allowed to see anything at all around the screen-eclipsing face of the leading lady, a gaunt Julia Roberts laughably cast as a lusty eater, heedless of packing in the pasta and packing on the pounds. Billy Crudup, James Franco, Luca Argentero, old bald Richard Jenkins (romanticizingly said to look just like James Taylor), and Javier Bardem, in various states of emasculation, are her men-in-waiting, the last-named the anointed Prince Charming at the end of the trail of arbitrary rejects. Insights acquired along the way, often talked out in first-person narration, boil down to glib one-liners, bromides, even bumper stickers (dolce far niente, translated the sweetness of doing nothing). On balance more comic than dramatic, more smarty-pants than smart, more chick flick than women’s film, it is as irredeemably bad as Sex and the City 2, bad as anything all year.