Two Charming Films from Mideast

In an age when a Kardashian can “break the Internet” with nude photos, discovering understatement in art is like a Thanksgiving feast for the spirit.

I recently came across two films available for home viewing that lingered on in my mind long after the end credits rolled.

In both movies, directed by women and set in the Middle East, myriad obstacles require romantic tales be rendered with subtlety and delicate restraint. Even so, both films are quietly explosive.

Take that, Kim.​​

“Cairo Time”​​

In Canadian-born director Ruba Nadda’s Cairo-set story of impossible love, Romeo and Juliet are replaced by Tareq and Juliette.

An American magazine editor (played by Patricia Clarkson) travels to Cairo to meet her husband on break from his job for the U.N., but when work detains him in Gaza he sends an old colleague, Tareq (Alexander Siddiq), to keep her busy.​​

The two develop a bond as they stroll city streets, lounge in cafes, idle through bazaars, and talk. Nadda makes Cairo time feel slowed down, in a heat-induced daze, a sensation echoed in the film’s dreamy soundtrack featuring Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum.

​​The pair’s mutual admiration and desire grow steadily until they embark on a trip together to Alexandria. On the train ride home, the intense weight of their longing is registered entirely through the actors’ silent gazes.

Voted Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, “Cairo Time” is a love letter to Egypt in all its contradictions. “They say once you’ve drunk the water of the Nile you will always come back,” Tareq assures Juliette.

He seems to embody the contrasts himself: elegance combined with decadence, desires constrained by customs, a leisurely lifestyle contrasted against perpetual social problems, and the great gender inequalities of the region.

Juliette offers the Westerner’s gaze as Nadda shows us Egypt through her eyes. When Juliette drags her armchair to the hotel balcony and cinematographer Luc Montpellier gives us a sweeping view of the Seine-like Nile River that cuts through Cairo, we discover the city ourselves. When Juliette gets herself into unnecessary danger — followed by a pack of men on the street, forcibly removed from a bus to Gaza — we share her alarm and embarrassment.

Juliette wants to do something about the problems she sees — street children, unschooled girls put to work to earn money for their weddings — but Tareq accuses her and her U.N. husband of trying to “save” the Middle East.​

She has promised not to visit the pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo until her husband returns, but Nadda shows their peaks jutting out over the skyline at seemingly every turn, a perfect symbol for the unexpected attachment that’s arisen between these two adults. It’s fitting that the pyramids take on a central role in the film’s closing sequence.

“Cairo Time” can be streamed on Netflix and Hulu Plus.

“Caramel”

“Caramel” (“Sukkar Banat”), co-written, directed by and starring Lebanese newcomer Nadine Labaki, turns on a group of women navigating social taboos in modern-day Beirut.

It’s like a Lebanese “Steel Magnolias” as Layale (Labaki) and her lifelong friends juggle clients, gossip and romance in a local beauty salon.

The film’s title alludes to the sugary concoction the women use for removing hair, pausing occasionally to voluptuously lick pieces of the sticky mass from their fingertips.

These are modern women, judging by their style, their concerns and their playful blending of Arabic, English and French.

But theirs is a world where a woman has to prove she’s married to rent a hotel room and undergo surgery to “restore” her virginity before marriage.

The Beirut of “Caramel” is a city of crumbling edifices and omnipresent police where young and old lovers alike have to sneak around.

And it’s a world where exchanged glances and brushed shoulders are thick with meaning, where shampooing a customer’s lustrous black hair or pruning a potential lover’s mustache are sensual acts.

Layale pines after her lover, a married man who constantly disappoints, but she seems oblivious to the nice guy next door, a local policeman clearly besotted with her. Each of her friends has her own relationship troubles.

Labaki takes her time developing the five lead characters, and as can happen in films with multiple tales interwoven, some subplots get short shrift.

But the film, which premiered in 2007 at the Cannes Film Festival, holds the viewer’s interest throughout with affectionate portrayals of every character.

When Layale packs to leave her parents’ home on the eve of her wedding, her mother tearfully passes on life advice.

It’s a touching tribute to the endurance of tradition, and underscores the dichotomous realities generations of women inhabit.

 

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