Recently released in Egypt's cinema theatres, Cairo Time by Amir Ramses is a film that revolves around interrelated characters in events over the span of a single day. The film follows the same format made famous by Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999) and Paul Haggis' Crash (2004), similarly implemented in the Egyptian cinema in Ahmad Abdalla’s Heliopolis (2009).
Cairo Time starts with the story of Yahia (Nour El-Sherif), an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s whose memory fails him except for a woman’s face on a piece of paper. He does not remember who she is, but remembers how he feels towards her and decides he must find her at all costs. Based in Alexandria, he attempts to travel to Cairo but is hindered by his son, a conservative hardliner, overly controlling and disrespectful of his father. Yahia manages to slip away. He convinces Hazem (Sherif Ramzy), an upper middle class drug dealer he encountered on the way, to give him a lift to Cairo.
The second story is of Layla (Mervat Amin), a retired actress who opted for a conservative lifestyle with doubts as to how she led her life in the field of entertainment. A Fatwa issued by a conservative preacher claiming that on screen marriages are real, leads her to try and get a divorce from her old co-star Sameh (Samir Sabry), another actor almost forgotten long after his glory days.
The third is of Wael (Karim Qasim) and Salma (Ayten Amin) who are in love but are unable to marry but decide to consummate their relationship anyway. Wael borrows the keys of a downtown apartment from his revolutionary friend Tarek as we follow their dynamics.
The film tackles the theme of growing old presented in the stories of Yahia, Layla and Sameh. Between the indifference and harshness of children, memory and reminiscing former glory days, there are genuine moments that are both heartfelt and saddening.
Sameh, despite being carefree and engrossed in life’s little pleasures like drinking and courting younger women, is revealed to be leading a lonely life filled only with the promise of visiting his only son in Canada.
Nour El-Sherif is still on the top of his game as Yahia, delivering the most outstanding storyline in the film.
Ramses manages to approach Alzheimer’s in an original and meaningful manner. The illness is portrayed as memory growing hazy like poor eyesight, but with a clarity of emotions. Something remains after the memories are fuzzy, and it is the residue of emotions that keep us human. We are what we feel in the absence of clear memory, and that in itself is real enough.
A formidable relationship develops between Yahia and Hazem, a well written unconventional drug dealer brought to life on screen through a smooth and powerful performance by Sherif Ramzy.
The motion picture is captivating with beautiful set designs by Ahmed Shaker complemented by warm cinematography by Mohamed Abdel-Raouf, and soft emotive music by Khaled Hammad.
However, there are plenty of glitches, such as poor continuity, hasty edits, and what seems like missing shots that disrupt the flow.
There are areas of the film that seem underwritten, such as the abrupt ending. None of the threads were ended in a satisfactory manner and it seemed rushed and left no or little space for contemplation.
The story of Wael and Salma is forced and they go through a year’s worth of relationship conversation in a single day, their moods changing far too quickly. Even with moving scenes throughout the film, there seems to be an abrupt transition into the next without time to completely absorb the script or conversations fully.
Nevertheless, Cairo Time manages to tell its stories centering on themes of time and age. It explores the effects of the extreme conservatism of Egyptian society and what both the older and younger generation have to grapple with. Whether it’s Yahia’s conservative son, Layla’s overly religious fiancé, or Salma’s fears of exposure, conservatism has branded all corners of society, with limited outlets.
The film itself is a tribute to cinema and art. The film is dedicated to Shadia in its opening credits, one of the most famous performers in Egyptian cinema. Her voice is heard throughout, stretching across generations as Hazem plays her songs throughout his journey on the road. In one of the scenes when Layla asks Sameh if he wasn’t afraid that God will judge them for their acting careers, Sameh tells Layla, “God will judge us for many things we’ve done wrong, but he won’t judge us for this.”
Cairo Time delves into dismantling what a relationship truly means. In the case of Yahia and Hazem it was about a kind of bond that can be formed and lost between father and son. In the case of Layla and Yahia it is about a pure love, a feeling that outlasts memory and time without marriage, for Wael and Salma it was about the true meaning of marriage without paper.
In its own subtle way, Cairo Time challenges societal norms through its simple stories and heartfelt moments. The conflicts it presents are those you would see in every day Egypt, presented with small triumphs of genuine emotions over the obstacles imposed by society.
By Wael Eskandar
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