The Cairo depicted in writer-director Tarik Saleh’s “Nile Hilton Incident,” a police thriller that unfolds in the weeks leading up to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, is as ready-made for big city noir as it is for a historic uprising.
Streets teem with the desperate and unhappy; badges, money or power protects everyone else; a crumbling daytime hardly seems a respite from the shrouded nights; and crime is currency. Nobody has the patience to pretend otherwise. When crooked police captain Noredin (Fares Fares) visits his ill father and tells him he’s come into some extra money, the dad wearily croaks, “Please, just say you stole it.”
Noredin did swipe it, from the belongings of a young woman, Lalena who was found with her throat slit in a room at the swanky Nile Hilton. It’s the kind of case that would normally earn a mighty police spotlight — the victim was a popular singer, her face plastered on billboards. But what looks to be a crime of passion reveals the possible involvement of a member of parliament named Hatem Shafiq (Ahmed Saleem), a wealthy real estate tycoon who is also a crony of President Hosni Mubarak. Shafiq’s on billboards too, touting the “new Cairo” he’s building with upscale development projects.
There’s a witness too, and her life is in danger. Parallel to the investigation, and unbeknown to Noredin, is the story of the hotel’s undocumented Sudanese housekeeper Salwa (Mari Malek), now in hiding after learning who she saw in the corridor the night of the murder. At the same time, a beautiful performer friend of the dead girl’s named Gina (Hania Amar) emerges, sparking feelings in the detective, who’s still grieving the death of his wife.
Unsurprisingly, Noredin is ordered by his boss (Yaser Aly Maher), who also not coincidentally is his uncle, to consider the case closed due to its sensitivities. But this solitary, everyday racketeer in cop’s clothing — who secretly holds a key clue pocketed at the crime scene — is unable to let it go, even though he knows what that means to his career and possibly to his life. With the whiff of a burgeoning anti-police sentiment starting to mix in with the city’s choked air of hopelessness and heat, and untouchable forces breathing down his neck, Noredin sees a chance to turn real police work into his own form of rebellion — and possibly redemption.
Fans of international crime fiction will recognize in the movie’s brooding, chain-smoking protagonist the kind of compromised but searching anti-hero whose actions afford a glimpse into how other societies operate, until we realize the contours of perfidy and injustice are, sadly, familiar everywhere. Fares, a Swedish-Lebanese actor who U.S. audiences may recognize from “Safe House,” “Rogue One” or even the Department Q movies on Netflix, is the right physical/philosophical specimen for this yarn, unfurling a magnetic portrayal of commonplace corruption as a kind of walking, wasting blues. As doomed as Noredin’s actions often seem, they’re tinged with enough simmering humanity to keep us caring.
Casablanca may be playing the part of Cairo here — a metropolis masquerade more than ably handled by cinematographer Pierre Aim — but Cairo is surely, in Saleh’s telling, angling to be a Middle Eastern version of “Chinatown.” Saleh may be a tad too mindful of how carefully he’s engineered his plot to reach a crescendo on the night of the Egyptian Revolution, but he makes it work. As a fed-up citizenry starts its momentous protest, and “The Nile Hilton Incident” drops in the players in its unforgiving drama, we’re asked to consider whether, in a rotten world, a policeman with a gun still represents something righteous, or a threat.
‘The Nile Hilton Incident’
In Arabic, Dinka, English and French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena