The air is thick with tension, regret, and promise in the Cairo of “In the Last Days of the City,” the plaintive, remarkably self-assured debut feature from Egyptian director Tamer El Said. Set in the year prior to the Arab Spring of late 2010, it follows brooding young filmmaker Khalid (Khalid Abdalla) as he struggles to complete a personal project about his ancient, troubled city while his own mind-set is trapped in a wandering cycle of bitter memories and fears for the present.
As Khalid tends to a dying mother (Zeinab Mostafa) and a frustrating search for a new apartment, he mourns a dimmed romance with a translator (Laila Samy) who’s leaving Egypt, and argues spiritedly with fellow Arab filmmakers (Hayder Helo, Basim Hajar and Bassem Fayad) visiting from their own turbulent cities: Berlin, Baghdad, and Beirut.
The pressing question among Khalid and his far-flung friends — what does it mean to capture your city on film, especially for a people forever caught in the grip of instability and displacement? “In the Last Days” is one answer, of course, and what El Said’s elegiac mixture of gliding camerawork along streets and alleyways, judicious soundscapes of voice and noise, and intimate, interior scene dramatics suggests is a filmic ode that leans in to the experiential while never ignoring the political.
A soulful, atmospheric travelogue that toggles between immersing in and removing itself from the chaotic beauty of teeming humanity, El Said’s movie gives a humming, on-the-edge metropolis its heart-pumping, reflective due.
‘In the Last Days of the City’
In Arabic with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica