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Egypt’s 2011 revolution provides the backdrop for Tarik Saleh’s unforgiving political thriller, which incrementally shifts focus from the grimy back streets of Cairo to the highest levels of parliament in the course of a scandalous murder investigation. Despite a rather generic title, The Nile Hilton Incident represents the type of penetrating filmmaking that only a writer-director intimately familiar with Egyptian culture but possessing an outsider’s perspective could convincingly accomplish.
As the film’s face of official corruption, lead actor Fares Fares (The Commune, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) will be recognizable to international audiences, while the Cairo setting (actually Casablanca) offers an unconventionally absorbing arena for the action to play out. Perfumed with an enervated atmosphere of decrepitude and stale tobacco smoke, Saleh’s striking feature parts the curtains on an era in the final throes of decline before it’s overwhelmed by historic change. Favorable critical response and enduring topicality could lead to an enthusiastic reception in specialized release and eventually on VOD.
In the final weeks before the regime of President Hosni Mubarak collapses in the face of overwhelming demonstrations and crippling labor strikes, the well-greased wheels of corruption are still grinding away in the back alleys of Cairo. As the nephew of district police chief Kamal (Yasser Ali Maher), middle-aged detective Noredin (Fares) has easily attained the rank of captain, a position that enables him to command a significant cut of the protection money he routinely collects from the streets of the capital, along with his younger partner Momo (Mohamed Yousry).
So when he gets a call to investigate a murder at the Nile Hilton Hotel in downtown Tahrir Square, it seems like an unrewarding distraction. Examining the body of the female victim, Noredin determines that her throat was slit in what looks like a professional hit job and identifies her as pop singer Lalena. During a search of the hotel room, he pockets a photo processing slip from her handbag, along with a wad of cash. Since he’s unable to question hotel maid Salwa (Mari Malek), an undocumented Sudanese refugee, he’s unaware that she saw a well dressed man leave Lalena’s room following a loud argument that morning, immediately before witnessing the killer enter.
During this measured setup, Saleh also reveals details of Noredin’s personal life that will pay off in later scenes, establishing his status as an alienated insider who can’t afford anything better than a crappy apartment and a beat-up old car despite the hoard of illicit cash stashed in his freezer. Living alone since his wife divorced him and moved out with their young son, he eats take-out meals by himself in front of the TV every night, watching the news, chain-smoking and drinking beer, never taking time for evening prayers.
As he attempts to track down Salwa, Noredin’s first real clue in the murder case surfaces after he picks up the prints and negatives from the photo-processing shop and identifies Lalena engaged in an intimate embrace with Hatem Shafiq (Ahmed Selim), a wealthy real estate developer and member of parliament. Before Noredin can press his investigation, Kamal tells him to drop the case after Lalena’s death is ruled a suicide by the prosecutor’s office. Prepared to return to patrolling Cairo’s mean streets again, Noredin is surprised to receive a call from Shafiq demanding a meeting. Scheming about how to turn the situation to his advantage, Noredin will need some fancy moves to outflank the well-connected Shafiq, a personal friend of President Mubarak.
By linking the film’s timeline to Egypt’s deteriorating political situation leading up to the revolution (and the first outbreak of major protests on National Police Day), Saleh reinforces the rapid unraveling of Noredin’s life and career. With Noredin’s options dwindling, the film sheds the restrained procedural pacing of the first half and shifts into more of a thriller mode as the murders and double-crosses escalate.
Fares’ demeanor similarly evolves from world-weary entitlement to escalating panic as Noredin realizes that he may only be able to survive if he can use the unpredictable street demonstrations as cover to outmaneuver his opponents. Egyptian actor Maher successfully disguises Kamal’s deceptions with unrelentingly venal motivation until he’s inevitably forced to choose between loyalty and self-preservation. US-based Sudanese refugee Malek’s first major screen role sympathetically reveals Salwa’s increasingly untenable predicament as the target of multiple attempts to silence her.
Even though Saleh was ironically forced to shift shooting to Casablanca after the production was shut down by the Egyptian state security service, the worn, begrimed locations remain remarkably evocative of Cairo’s implied putrefaction under the Mubarak regime. DP Pierre Aim’s prowling camera unpeels the city’s layers of physical and moral decay in muted, contrasting tones that intermittently highlight sudden, bloody bursts of violence, confirming the barely concealed menace lurking within the untouchable corridors of power.
Production company: Atmo
Cast: Fares Fares, Mari Malek, Mohamed Yousry, Yaser Aly Maher, Ahmed Seleem, Hania Amar, Ger Duany
Director-writer: Tarik Saleh
Producer: Kristina Aberg
Director of photography: Pierre Aim
Production designer: Roger Rosenberg
Editor: Theis Schmidt
Music: Krister Linder
Costume designer: Louize Nissen
Casting directors: Fabien Boitiere, Marwa Gabriel
Sales: The Match Factory
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Not rated, 110 minutes
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