'Luxor': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Karim Saleh and Andrea Riseborough in 'Luxor'
Ambitious cinema at a meditative pace.

Andrea Riseborough stars as a war-zone doctor hoping to be healed.

Early in the meditative travel drama Luxor, a woman crumples in front of a colossal stone wall carved with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Like the Nile-adjacent city that serves as the film's namesake, the glyphs are measured in millennia, a testament to humanity's will to endure. A fellow tourist is nonplussed by the fainting spell. "The energy is too strong here," she explains. "They get overwhelmed and collapse."

Call it an energy, call it something else, but there's a something that affects the travelers in the 4,000-year-old city of Luxor, where pharaonic tombs, grand temples, 60-foot statues and sundry other ruins compose what's frequently called "the world's greatest open-air museum." It's that something that British doctor Hana (Andrea Riseborough) hopes to be changed by when she returns to Egypt after a depleting stint at the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Unsurprisingly, the star of Luxor is the titular city, which writer-director Zeina Durra (The Imperialists Are Still Alive!) showcases in postcard-ready shots of exquisite archeological sites, sun-kissed cityscapes, peaceful boat rides on the river, gently swaying palm trees and modern amenities within charmingly old-fashioned hotels. (The cinematography can be summed up as "dry heat.") Luxor is also home to a population of 500,000, but the snapshots of daily life are fleeting: This is a travelogue set mostly amidst attractions and the hotel bar, amongst English-speaking guides, other sightseers, and one harrumphing manager. One exception: The metal detector at the hotel's entrance.

The film's ambitions are admirable. As we slowly but steadily discover, Hana, a burnt-out surgeon dedicated to treating war trauma, hopes to be healed enough by the city to take on an even more arduous assignment. Recovery is a common story beat in cinema, but it's seldom the entire point of a feature. That's no surprise — how do you visually represent a character gradually feeling whole again?

Luxor is a dialogue- and backstory-averse mood piece, too: Durra proffers the barest amount of her protagonist's biography to get us to understand her, leaning on Riseborough's deglamorized, largely physical performance (including a deliberately graceless dance sequence) and our awe of the city's splendor to fill in the rest, and perhaps in the process glean a bit of Hana's restoration ourselves. It is, in other words, the kind of film you are definitely into or definitely not. Unfortunately, it's the kind of film I wish I was into, but its aspirations are commendable nonetheless.

Though much of its runtime is devoted to Hana taking a stroll or looking out a car window, Luxor does progressively grow in intensity. She runs into her old friend Sultan (Karim Saleh), a visiting archaeologist from America, and their compact, oblique conversations lead to something like a personal excavation. Despite her obvious distaste for traditional domesticity, Hana appears temporarily relieved of her burdens when he's around. It helps that Riseborough, who delivers a subtle and fully inhabited performance, shares the kind of chemistry with Saleh that suggests decades of mutual, if fragmented, history.

The scenic backdrops, relaxed rapport, philosophical discussions and a murmuring hum of anxiety about the unlikely future of this romance make it a spiritual cousin of the Before Sunrise trilogy, though a sadder and more haunted relation. But in the end, Luxor is about something much more special, at least in the movies, than love. Hana tells other travelers that she's on vacation, but what the film chronicles is a pilgrimage — the kind many more Westerners used to make in the belief that a particular place could transform them. Whether any city can do that is beside the point. Durra peels away at her lead character to reveal the desperation of Hana's belief that Luxor can glue her back together. Her hope pierces.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production company: Film Clinic
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Karim Saleh, Michael Landes, Sherine Reda, Salima Ikram, Shahira Fahmy
Director: Zeina Durra
Screenwriter: Zeina Durra
Producers: Mohamed Hefzy, Gianluca Chakra, Mamdouh Saba, Zeina Durra
Executive producers: Paul Webster, Hisham Al Ghanim
Director of photography: Zelmira Gainza
Production designer: Mohamed Fakhry
Costume designer: Reem Salama
Music: Nascuy Linares
Editor: Andrea Chignoli
Casting: Kate Ringsell, Ahmed Youssef El-Gamal, Karim Sayed
Sales: CAA, Totem Films

85 minutes