By Jeremy Carr.
There are bound to be comparisons made between Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident and several films of the past. Understandably so. This 2017 thriller, a multinational coproduction, has the embittered cynicism of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and the seedy city view of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), all encased in the procedural, probing shell of a classic noir or Warner Bros. detective feature. Despite any similarities, though, what keeps Saleh’s film unique and engrossing is how it incorporates these referential touchstones within a contemporary milieu that is in itself heightened by the formal allusions, simultaneously refreshing them with a modern application.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Nile Hilton Incident is the third feature from Saleh, following Metropia in 2009 and Tommy in 2014. The film is set in Cairo (actually Casablanca) during the January 2011 unrest that ultimately led to the violent ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and to widespread revolution throughout Egypt. An initially outlying account of this external upheaval is implanted sporadically within the film, with cursory glimpses and insinuations of what is to come during the picture’s climactic sequence. Up front, however, is the investigative plight of Police Commander Noredin Mostafa (Fares Fares). Noredin, a well-known officer with some degree of mostly low-level influence, stumbles upon a criminal scenario with wide-ranging and far-reaching implications. What starts with the seemingly straightforward murder of a singer becomes a complex conspiracy, taking the misanthropic commander out of his depth and beyond his pay grade. Like the peeling of an increasingly pungent onion, Noredin uncovers layer upon layer of corruption, to the point where everyone from the singer’s promoter/pimp to Noredin’s police general uncle to a prosperous building developer and member of parliament seems to have a hand in the instigating homicide and ensuing cover-up.
There’s a lot riding on Fares’ performance. As with Robert De Niro’s eponymous cabbie in the aforementioned Scorsese film, Noredin is the primary protagonist and an insightful agent for viewer identification. Much of what we see in The Nile Hilton Incident, and how we perceive it, comes through the eyes of this hard-boiled skeptic. Away from the case, Fares plays Noredin as a steely, withdrawn, and inharmonious figure. He is comically out of step with present-day society (utterly baffled by social media) and at home, the recently widowed detective wallows in drug- and booze-fueled complacency. He has his routine, his stable of sources, and his own dubious methodology, but this particular crime, and the cumulative realizations that go along with it, prompts a classic moral conflict. Fares, who is perhaps most familiar for 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty and last year’s Star Wars entry, Rogue One, carries a cluster of inner demons, suggested without eliciting volatile Travis Bickle-esque anxiety or sentimental sympathy (he clearly feels bad, but we never feel too bad for him). He has simply seen enough to see through the bullshit. He is used to the sordid underbelly of Cairo nightlife and comfortable in a policeman’s world of hardened disillusionment, darkly, if most amusingly, seen when another officer orders room service while examining the singer’s body, proceeding to eat the meal above the corpse and charging the food to the room. But after this incident is so blatantly swept under the rug, something clicks. There is an overwhelming immorality Noredin can’t keep up with, and can no longer tolerate.
Also playing a role in his estimable quest – part personal redemption, part judicial responsibility – is another unwitting participant in the contracting drama, Salwa (Mari Malek), an undocumented Sudanese maid who happened to hear the slaying and see the assailant. Her tragic position puts not only her own livelihood in jeopardy (Saleh gives her immigrant status ample attention without making it unreasonably prominent, as a mere fact of life), but risks the lives of those around her as well, those who are likewise just trying to make their own place in the world. The refugee role of Salwa supplies an aspect of The Nile Hilton Incident that imparts regional context to the central investigation and contributes to why the film stands apart from its cinematic antecedents. Elements of pervasive dishonesty and stringent abuses of power surely play a part in the fundamental narrative of the picture, but these elements are also indicative of an enveloping cultural framework. Concurrent with the similarly significant Tunisian Revolution that same month (even though Tunisia is in turmoil, Noredin’s uncle complains they still beat Egypt in football), the Egyptian crisis serves as a reflective and consequential byproduct of this rampant political degeneracy. It’s a combustible situation that tightens around this metropolitan circle, ensnaring Noredin himself, who falls victim to the stated and enacted distain for authoritative oppression (in his case, he is a gun-toting police officer).
Contributing to the intensity of the ongoing murder mystery, as well as the evolving social strife, is the invasive style of The Nile Hilton Incident. Saleh and cinematographer Pierre Aïm amplify a boiling undercurrent of disquiet by accentuating the surrounding city, its vibrant, infusing setting a gritty and brutal, yet brilliant and alive, urban backdrop. Florescent lights and frenzied sounds permeate the visually loaded interiors (cars, apartments, stores), feeding the sense of chaos and omnipresent danger. There is an equally inherent menace in the skeptical, scornful glances exchanged between characters as they weigh allegiances and anticipate actions. Noredin’s taut travails are so self-destructive, to the extent that he dares challenge the prevailing powers that be, that even flashes of intimacy have a threatening resonance when Krister Linder’s edgy score kicks in. As the body count increases and the multileveled investigations lead to an escalation of injustice and economic dissent, the tense ambiance explodes in Tahrir Square, where the isolated incident of the film’s foundational murder yields to a large-scale uprising.
With regards to its immediate plot, and the difficulties of Commander Noredin Mostafa, The Nile Hilton Incident concludes with a beaten resignation that does very much resemble the “Forget it, Jake” conclusion of Chinatown. There has, indeed, been a lingering futility to the entire episode. What’s different, though, again comes back to this broader sociopolitical picture. As disheartening as the essential storyline may be, the concluding moments of the movie point to a flicker of positivity, where repressive bleakness is fractured and a glimmer of hope shines through, where at least the film’s final shot suggests a breakdown of the systemic bureaucracy that led to such corruption in the first place.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.