Police corruption has long been and continues to be relevant, compelling subject matter for the silver screen. Bad Lieutenant, Assault on Precinct 13, L.A. Confidential, Training Day, The Departed, and more have contributed to this sub-genre that has all the trappings of must-watch content: high-profile deception, guns, violence, money, drugs… it’s easy to understand why, despite the alarming analogues to reality, we continue to tune in to police corruption stories. Frankly, this is why I was interested in checking out The Nile Hilton Incident, writer/director Tarik Saleh’s Swedish noir that pits the classic corruption story against the backdrop of Cairo and the Egyptian Revolution. And while the change of scenery kept me interested throughout, The Nile Hilton Incident ultimately does not enter the pantheon of great films on the subject.
The titular “incident” refers to a murder that occurs very early in the film at the Nile Hilton in January of 2011, just days prior to the Egyptian Revolution that started on Police Day in Cairo. The crime is committed offscreen and conveyed through the eyes and ears of a housekeeper, Salwa (Mari Malek). Knowing that she just witnessed something that puts her own life in danger, Salwa goes into hiding. When Police Commander Noredin Mostafa (Fares Fares) is assigned to investigate, he realizes that something is amiss about this crime and it may be much bigger than he thought. His quest begins to find the witness before the murderers do. And as Noredin continues his investigation, despite direct orders to stand down, he realizes that what he thought he knew about his precinct, his city, and even his understanding of the world around him, is a stitched-together mirage of half-truths and blatant lies.
Sounds exciting, right? Unfortunately, Tarik Saleh seems uninterested in capitalizing on the high drama of his tale, preferring instead to focus on the minutia of life in Cairo leading up to the Egyptian Revolution. This gives his audience plenty to chew on— from mundane but flavorful details like crappy TV reception and people just learning what Facebook is to the larger brush strokes of people living in utter squalor, shootings in the streets as part of daily life as you stroll down the lane, and mass deportations occurring regularly. All of the attention to what this setting feels like creates a palpable tension and intense viewing experience, which is multiplied by the handheld, documentary style cinematography. The excellent tapestry that Saleh created here kept my interest afloat, even as all else left me wanting. The story goes through predictable twists and turns without any real sense of stakes or propulsion. Things just happen. We meet people, then they go missing or are deported to serve the story. Characters just do things without any sense of context. This seems partly deliberate— many scenes we enter, we feel like flies on the wall for a conversation that started way before we got there. While this lack of exposition is realistic, it’s not all that interesting. The motivations of many of our characters aren’t clear, even that of our protagonist, Noredin.
It’s not helpful that I reject his heroic turn. We meet him as he’s making his rounds to pick up bribes from local businesses. He threatens folks that can’t afford to pay him, and he refuses to acknowledge the ones that do. This is a “bad” thing, right? When he shows up to the crime scene in question, his colleagues order room service on the tab of the slain room occupant. A weird, insensitive, and “bad” thing, right? Well, we’re made to think that this is just life in Cairo, where the police are more corrupt than the criminals. So it’s increasingly difficult to see Noredin as a good, albeit conflicted man. We’re asked to believe that he is someone that has borne the weight of all of these minor but plentiful crimes, and now the mystery behind one murder, of someone he did not know, will compel him to disregard everything and everyone around him to get to the truth? I don’t buy it, partly because of the average writing, partly because of the relatively wooden, straight-forward acting from Fares Fares. If we saw more behind his eyes, more repulsion to the world around him, this may have been more believable, but we don’t get that here. The film ends with a dark twist, which I typically love, but the fundamental manner in which this story is told prevents the climax from landing with anything other than a thud.
The Nile Hilton Incident creates a rich setting that we often aren’t privy to in order to tell an age-old story that we’ve heard a thousand times. Its cinematography and production design are to be lauded, but the subpar script and average acting dispel hopes of elevating this above any other noir out there. If you’re into noir or Egyptian history, it may still interest you; otherwise, I cannot recommend it.
The Nile Hilton Incident opens in Philly theaters today.