Certain films shine light through a window into a turbulent era that we may have thought little about previously. Director-writer Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident definitely does that. Though it takes place only six and a half years ago in 2011, it’s a thriller with a long view—a human story set against an historical sweep—extremely well balanced. One may be reminded of Cabaret’s Berlin in the 1930s or the steady fall of the Confederacy in Georgia during the first half of Gone With the Wind.
The Nile Hilton Incident involves a flawed, but nonetheles, truth-seeking police detective, Noredin, played by actor Fares Fares (that’s right, first name is repeated). Fares Fares has a singular way of moving us from point to point with his lean, agile, and angular screen presence. He beguiles like an Egyptian reincarnation of Humphrey Bogart morphed with Gary Cooper. Fares has a gift for being almost grotesque and then almost godlike; socially dynamic and yet quite intimate; and within all that he demonstrates considerable subtlety, mystery, and depth. True star quality.
Mari Malek is poignantly vulnerable as Salwa, a Sudanese housekeeping staffer. Like Fares, Malek has a gift for blending the viewer right into the action as if we are right alongside her. When she sees a man fleeing a room where he has just murdered a woman, Salwa knows her life has changed for the worse in an instant. Simply bearing witness to the aftershock of evil is enough to destabilize your very existence, as The Nile Hilton Incident deftly relates. Unfortunately Salwa, because of her alien status, has no rights and is caught between Mafia-style elements in her own clandestine community and corrupt law enforcement officials of the decaying and decadent Egyptian power structure. In the eyes of police she is a nobody who knows that someone of the privileged classes, whom cops are tasked and corruptly compensated to protect, is the criminal.
Saleh has scrupulously depicted police officers as habitually on the take—brazenly taking cash bribes throughout as a matter of normalized interaction between themselves. Jovial official images of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak pepper scenes throughout the film as if psychically validating graft. Even Noredin does so as bribes have essentially become institutionalized. In order to find the killer he has no choice.
As you might guess, cops, not to mention a politician, become both immediate and remote accomplices to the cover-up of the murder. Blackmail over sexual photos, nightclub criminality, and an “I’ll scratch your back so you’ll scratch mine” ethos run concurrently with scenes of Cairo streets where volatile civil unrest encroaches.
This intensity is highly realistic and well served by editor Theis Schmidt, cinematographer Pierre Aim, and composer Krister Linder, who has astutely placed occasional musical moments that accentuate certain actions and certain emotional undercurrents.
The days of Egypt’s tyrannical leader Hosni Mubarak are numbered. We sense we are witnessing the collapse of an oppressive era. Yet what’s stirring in the wings seems equally dreadful, as one remarkably ironic moment conveys toward the end of the film. But you’ll have to see it for yourself to know what that is. You may get a chill down your spine.
The Nile Hilton Incident
Opens Friday, Sept. 8
Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis