Casablanca stands in for Cairo in The Nile Hilton Incident—and makes a compelling star. The story takes place in the days leading up to the Arab Spring in January 2011, and the city throbs with discontent. The camera trails cars through the city’s glittering highways, on roads which suddenly tail off into teeming night markets and trash strewn cul-de-sacs, and ventures into smoky Internet cafes and dingy police stations. So overflowing with atmosphere, this aspiring thriller can’t quite live up to the richness of its setting, burdened as it is with sluggish rhythms and a fog of defeated cynicism that makes the Romanian New Wave look like Singin’ in the Rain.
Detective Noredin (Fares Fares, resembling Yves Montand, with the wind knocked out of his sails) turns over a dead woman’s body in a swanky hotel room and resolves to find her murderer. Owing his police career to flagrant nepotism and demanding bribes, Noredin is hardly a likeable character. But he’s a man obsessed. He’ll hound a highly-placed friend of Egypt’s president, chase a downtrodden Sudanese refugee maid and eyewitness to the crime, defy his crooked bosses, and even hook up with a doe-eyed Tunisian pop star as he pursues the killer.
All this action may sound irresistible, but the energy needed to motor a detective story somehow goes missing. The film takes its time connecting multiple characters—too much time. Scenes play slowly and repetitively. The tormented Noredin’s weary gait eventually feels like sleepwalking. An ever-roving lens, so determined to reveal the underbelly of a textured and seedy metropolis, slows the pace down, and countless snatches of dialogue and TV broadcasts insist on reminding us that Cairo is a cesspit of corruption and hopelessness. Cairenes have been known throughout the Middle East for their wit and humor, but we only get one joke, and not a terribly funny one about a toilet.
Subplots reveal intriguing glimpses of life in a low-tech Arab capital seemingly lost in time, struggling to connect to the wired world outside: Noredin’s pretty-boy assistant flirts over the Internet with a blonde Western matron, and Noredin’s newly repaired TV will only play Italian channels. Faced with discrimination and low status, the fugitive maid finds herself endangered by her rash spouse, Clinton, presumably named after the former U.S. president. Nile’s side stories often feel more engaged and dramatic than the elaborate yet one-note main narrative.
Towards the end, the plot connects rather tenuously with the first demonstrations of the Arab Spring. These hopeful steps to freedom ironically derail Noredin’s quest for justice. Additionally, revisiting the revolution in this movie dampens an already downbeat experience with another layer of pessimism. After all, we know how that turned out.