Tuesday 13 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (18) THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT (Tarik Saleh, Sweden, Denmark, Germany). Reviewed by Max Berghouse

Editor’s Note: This movie has drawn much favourable comment from the SFF crowds. An earlier report by Sydney supercinephile Barrie Pattison was similarly enthusiastic. Click on the link above to find Barrie’s review.

The Nile Hilton Incident (2017) Sweden/Denmark/Germany (Production). Filmed in Casablanca Morocco. Tarik Saleh (Director and Screenplay). With: Fares Fares (Major/Colonel Noredin), Yasser Ali Maher (General Kammal, uncle to Noredin), Mari Malek (Salwa). An Atmo Production (Kristina Aberg, Producer).

Fares Fares, The Nile Hilton Incident
The director, a Swedish citizen of Egyptian background is a leading artist as well as writer and director who brings with him to this production what I presume to be very considerable "behind the camera" production skills. Actual production in Cairo was banned by the current Egyptian regime (about which more later) and was filmed effectively in Casablanca Morocco. That said there are certainly shots of Cairo: the Nile Hilton shown is indeed the Cairo Hilton and it is on Tahir Square (although the subtitles refer to it as "Tahrir Square – presumably a typing mistake) and there is one shot from within the hotel where one can look out the hotel room window in the top left of the picture and see two of the major pyramids which are outside the city. The mere mention of the name of that square brings to mind in any viewer, the events of the people's revolution which ousted the long-standing quasi-criminal regime of Mr Mubarak, to be subsequently replaced by the inept Moslem Brotherhood regime of Mohammed Morsi and then a further disposition of power, back to the old guard represented by the incoming president Field Marshall Al Sissi.

It is only at the very end of the film that the revolution starts and inevitably the protagonist is caught up in this because the Nile Hilton is so close to it. Whether these are stock scenes or created scenes or a mixture of both, they are both apparently accurate and extremely involving. The city itself is manifestly crumbling and corruption so endemic as to be scarcely worth taking note of. Despite being a ranking officer in the police force, Noredin who reports to his uncle General Kammal, is effectively the bag man for the systematic corruption within this particular police district. This is a place that deserves no better and Noredin goes about his task very professionally while being practically dead emotionally. His not inconsiderable share of the take is wrapped in plastic bags and kept in his refrigerator while most of his solitary life (his wife being dead) is spent incessantly smoking, drinking and eating takeaways. He is shown being exceptionally concerned to get adequate picture and sound on his TV, just to get access to trite local and European TV programmes.

Incidentally the plotline is derived from a factual case in Cairo in 2008.

The story concerns the murder of a chanteuse/prostitute at the direction of her very wealthy real estate developer lover, member of Parliament, politically connected and all-round bad guy. Without actually seeing the murder, it is witnessed by the Sudanese hotel room cleaner, Salwa, who does everything she can to stay out of the line of fire. When the matter is brought to the attention of the police, Noredin is the investigator in what is a clear and very bloody murder but which is nonetheless classified by higher-ups in the police department as a suicide. His interest in trying to resolve the matter is piqued, despite this clear awareness that he is being warned off and that such action will be dangerous. This interest seems at least partly inspired by the murdered girl’s friend, also a singer and prostitute coming to the police station to agitate for action. So here we have some of the significant tropes of film noir: the tempting but dangerous female together with a necessarily sordid and instinctively corrupt world.

While set in current day Cairo, geographical setting is largely irrelevant. It could be any large metropolis, with the exception that this is Cairo in what we, the audience knows, even if the film' s participants don't, that these are the dying days of the vicious Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt. We know that the system of ingrained corruption will in a short time at the very least be challenged. The characters don't.

So I think there is a sense of foreboding and uncertainty about the entire structure of the world the participants inhabit and this is very characteristic of film noir. For me the most obvious parallel was The Big Sleep (1946, Warner Brothers/Howard Hawks). This masterly film which was rendered from a novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler and had inputs in the script from him as well as being largely written by equally famed author William Faulkner, remains not entirely logical or consistent.

Unless my concentration lapsed I think much the same could be said for this film although it doesn't damage interest because the film moves along at a very sprightly pace involving and pretty much integrating various issues which are germane to film noir. Its dramatic intensity increases scene by scene. Despite being a corrupt policeman – in the sense of everyday corruption – where everybody has to get a piece of the pie, police Major and subsequently Colonel, Noredin is the very typical, if not noir, then pre-noir thriller protagonist who maintains a personal integrity despite the apathy and viciousness going on all around him. This is what impels him to pursue the cause of the death of the beautiful murdered girl.

Of course the ultimate causes involve corruption and malfeasance from on high which makes the small time corruption of Noredin (consistently exceptionally well played by Egyptian actor Fares Fares) look like a perfectly natural response. Ultimately the one ingredient that would elevate this film to being absolutely first-rate as opposed to being merely very entertaining is that there really is no motivation shown as to why he should move from the usual passivity, only involving himself to the point of being paid off, to a position where he alienates everyone, including those upon whom he must attend in the future, in his pursuit of the murderer.

Shot in Casablanca, Morocco, the film seems to perfectly capture Cairo in all its rundown despair just preceding the riots in Tahir Square.

The audience knows this is not going to end well, if not right now, then very soon. The coalescence of the dangerous and rotting world of Mubarak's Egypt, displayed in the rotting city of Cairo and the rotting moral decadence of all those in authority makes this a very superior film. Not great, but very superior indeed.

All in all, great fun.

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