BEIRUT: No question. When a filmmaker embraces genre – tightly enough to see the sweat-stained shirt collar and smell the nicotine smoke in the hair – some entertaining cinema can squeeze out. That’s the story with “The Nile Hilton Incident.” The third feature of writer-director Tarik Saleh premiered early this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where it took the grand jury prize for international fiction. The film enjoyed its Lebanese premiere this week at Metropolis Cinema, where it opened Maskoon, the film festival devoted to quality genre film.
“Nile Hilton” is set in Cairo in early 2011, the run-up to a popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and reinforced the power of the deep state that had sustained his regime. The story’s told from the perspective of Noureddin Mustafa (Fares Fares), a police force major.
We’re introduced to the major during a slow panning shot that opens on the screen of his television.
A talking head notes how, in the old days, everyone worked overtime because “we were building the country.” Now that’s been accomplished, so no one needs to work that hard anymore.
The clutter of the cop’s modest salon drifts through the frame until the lens settles on Mustafa himself, preening in the mirror before work.
Saleh devotes the first act of his film to sketching the corrupt character making up this Cairene echo of “Bad Lieutenant.” After his younger sidekick Momo (Mohamed Yousry) has introduced him to a dating site called Facebook, the cops are shown cruising a Cairo market district. Mustafa holds court – hearing (or ignoring) supplicants and collecting bribes – seldom having Momo pull over.
At the end of his work day Mustafa returns to his flat and stuffs the day’s take into a ziplock in his freezer. He prays, then drinks a beer over a takeaway supper. He lights a spliff and watches Mubarak give a speech about Police Day. It’s Jan. 15.
The next day, a young Sudanese woman named Salwa (Mari Malek) is taking the bus to work. A casual laborer, she works as a chambermaid at the Nile Hilton hotel. While pushing her trolley up a corridor, she overhears a woman shouting from one of the rooms. An annoyed-looking fellow bursts from the hotel room and strides away.
As annoyed man leaves the hotel, he passes another dodgy-looking guy sitting in the lobby. This second man goes to the room annoyed man’s just left. As Salwa is having a smoke in a nearby room, she hears the woman’s throttled scream. Concealed behind her cleaning trolley, she witnesses the assassin as he slips out of the slain woman’s room.
Mustafa arrives at a comically compromised crime scene. The cops appear to be having a picnic. One of them has covered the victim’s face with a towel. The senior prosecutor has ordered dessert from room service. “Charge it to the room,” he tells the server with a wave of his hand.
Mustafa goes through the victim’s purse and pockets her money, along with a receipt from Photo Amir. The front desk clerk refuses to tell him who reserved the room, saying only the owner knows. When he demands to know the name of “the owner” – a big-time developer named Hatem Shafiq – the clerk presents him with the guest book.
Mustafa opens it to find a thick wad of Egyptian Guinea.
“A little compliment,” he says, “from the hotel, sir.”
The useless desk clerk is unable to tell Mustafa the full name or address of the Sudanese chambermaid – the subject of one the film’s principal subplots – who found the victim’s corpse.
Stuck in traffic en route to Photo Amir, Mustafa looks up and finds the victim’s face alongside the name “Lalena,” on a billboard advertising her CD.
A quick stop at a CD kiosk reveals the victim to have been a crooner of Umm Kulthoum-ish torch songs.
At Photo Amir, the birdlike proprietor hands over Lalena’s prints and negatives, glancing up from his pottering every now and then to watch Mustafa as he examines photos of the victim’s intimate moments with the impatiently-leaving-the-hotel-room man from the day of her murder.
The candid-photos-of-intimacy trope is a bit “L.A. Confidential,” but the film moves swiftly on with a winking joke. Stuck in traffic again – not a rare occurrence in Cairo – Mustafa glances up to find the smiling face of the man in the victim’s photos. He too is on a billboard, this one adorned with the slogan “Building a new Cairo with a modern vision.” It’s Hatem Shafiq!
In a region whose socialpolitical vagaries are not incompatible with gangster movies, “The Nile Hilton Incident” is a particularly adept adaptation of American noir convention to contemporary Cairo.
DP Peter Aim (whose career has seen him shoot such diverse projects as “La Haine,” 1995, “Im Juli,” 2000, and “Polisse,” 2011) has chosen an appropriately muddy palate for this depiction of Cairo, and he makes good use of the often-snug interior locations.
As is central to noir, “Nile Hilton” is replete with comic moments. The most successful comic plot motif is Mustafa’s relationship with his handyman. An earnest young fellow charged with fixing the major’s television reception, he gets his cousin to do the job and leaves Mustafa with only Italian channels. Later he finds him more European TV, but nothing Egyptian.
When the cops start hauling in university student revolutionaries, Mustafa assesses the youngsters in the lockup and asks, “What are they in for, not doing their homework?”
Saleh’s most accomplished tragicomic dialogue exchange, however, drops during Mustafa’s chat with an opinionated cabbie, outraged at the news that some Alexandria coppers killed a young demonstrator during questioning.
“Scumbag pigs,” he gestures to his rear view mirror. “People are pissed. They’re planning a demonstration outside police headquarters on Police Day. Will you go?”
“I have to go,” the major replies, drawing on his fag. “I’m one of those scumbag pigs.”
The driver glances over his shoulder and pauses. “Those people in Alexandria,” he says energetically, “they’re such liars!”
The laughs, of course, are designed for brief respite from the sombre weight of the proceedings.
By the time the last imaginary film reel has fully uncoiled, it’s apparent who the real villain of this story is.
It’s not the perp Mustafa’s been pursuing, naturally.
“Maskoon” is running at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil through Sept. 17. See http://www.metropoliscinema.net.