There’s something irresistibly alluring about this film’s title. It promises crime, glamour and intrigue. The Nile Hilton Incident delivers that in spades. A police procedural and a political thriller, a Cairo Confidential by way of Casablanca, it’s a homage to film noir and to the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. The film is heavily stylised, knowingly alluding to Polanski’s Chinatown. But then something cuts across that stylised world, sharply: a subplot featuring a hotel cleaner, Salwa (played by Mari Malek). It brings the story, vividly, into relevance, into the here and now. It also uncovers the moral core of the flawed central character, Noredin Mostafa (Fares Fares).
Cairo, January 2011. In just a few days, the Arab Spring will kick off and finds its centre of resistance in Tahrir Square. For the moment, however, it is business, and crime, as usual. Close to the square, in a smart Cairo hotel, a woman is found dead, her throat slit. She is a famous Tunisian singer, Lalena. Police survey the crime scene, and order room service. One of the them inspects the victim’s wallet and helps himself to her cash. This is how the film’s hero, Noredin Mostafa, enters the scene.
It takes a while to adjust to Noredin’s character and contradictions. Like everyone around him, he is corrupt. He lives in a society where things have fallen apart long ago. Noredin is quickly told by his superior – and uncle – Kamal Mostafa (Yasser Ali Maher) to adopt a very light touch. Another layer of reality is exposed. Their society is based on nepotism and patronage, as well as corruption. Noredin is encouraged to treat the murder case as a suicide, despite the impossibility, as he points out indignantly, of Lalena slitting her own throat.
Noredin, despite falling in step with the corruption around him, is not entirely hardened. He understands his ill-gotten money is not a solution to his stuck-ness. He can’t even get his television to work, and the repeated failure of his television becomes a ironic motif in the story.
His father lovingly reminds him that dignity cannot be sold; his suspect tells him indignantly that he is a fool – he is not in Switzerland, where it is presumably safer to be a good citizen. Noredin carries within himself a sense of justice and empathy. Something in him turns, and he finds himself striding against the current.
This is no whodunnit. From the beginning, almost, the ‘who’ is obvious to all: a murder ordered by Lalena’s lover, Hatem Shafiq (Ahmed Selim). He is a prominent parliamentarian and construction magnate, closely linked to the country’s ruler. This is very close to reality: the film is based on the murder of celebrated Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim. Her lover, who was later convicted of her murder, was a prominent construction magnate and political figure, close to the ruling regime at the time.
The sense of how real this case is, is veiled to some degree by the film’s genre conventions and visual style. It’s a double-edged storytelling device. Someone, however, escapes from the cocoon of genre, and introduces a sharp, stinging note: a witness, the hotel cleaner Salwa. She is in jeopardy herself – a Sudanese war refugee, living in a community of fellow refugees. She is not safe there either – there too a strongman rules, as corrupt and ruthless as the other villains in the story. Salwa is played, convincingly, absorbingly, by Mari Malek. Now a successful model, actress and DJ, in her childhood she was in a precarious situation too – a child refugee from South Sudan, she spent four years in a camp before starting a new, hard, life in the United States.
Mari Malek is not the only participant in the film to have a cosmopolitan experience of the world. Tarik Saleh, the film’s director, is Swedish, but has a link to Egypt through his family background, which perhaps explains his choice of topic and location for this film. Lead actor Fares Fares, who plays Noredin, is also Swedish but spent his early childhood in Lebanon. Hichem Yacoubi, who plays Nagui, a pimp involved with the deceased, and who is known to UK audiences thanks to his superb, haunting performance in Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète, is French, with family antecedents in Tunisia.
The Egyptian authorities withdrew permission to shoot the film in Cairo, and as a result the Nile Hilton Incident was shot in Casablanca, Morocco, a place well equipped for film productions but rather different to Cairo. Having to relinquish Cairo as a film location meant relinquishing a wealth of detail, giving up much about creating a Cairo-specific sense of people, time and place.
This creates a paradox – the filmmakers are cosmopolitan, and so are their concerns. The accounts of corruption and political dysfunction have a textbook feel in their exposition. The film’s settings too, almost universal – it could be anywhere, within the region – a large region. One can imagine that in some ways, some aspects of Cairo would have been like this in the 1950s, but it is not the Cairo of today, despite the added Arab Spring footage. It feels as if a semi-outsider were recounting the story.
It’s a subtle sense, which does not detract from the strength of the tale, or the truths it exposes. The film remains compelling, as do its beauty and narrative tension. The sense of melancholy disenchantment hits exactly the spot, film noir par excellence, with just the tiniest tone of pastiche. And the end feels satisfying, for romantic pessimists as much as for thriller fans.
(Sweden-Denmark-Germany, 106 minutes)
Director & Writer: Tarik Saleh
Cinematography: Pierre Aïm
Cast: Fares Fares, Mari Malek, Yasser Ali Maher, Slimane Dazi, Ahmed Selim, Hania Amar, Hichem Yacoubi
Originally published on myfilmclub.co.uk, March 2018