“IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY” — 2½ stars — Khalid Abdalla, Laila Samy, Hanan Youssef; not rated; Tower
Tamer El Said’s “In the Last Days of the City” is the story of a film within a film, following a filmmaker in search of a subject.
Khalid Abdalla plays Khalid, a documentary filmmaker in Cairo who is struggling to finish his current project. He’s done some interviews and has some interesting footage, but he still feels like he’s grasping for something to bring his film together. He stands on a balcony with his friends and looks out at his city, convinced there is something out there that is calling to him.
His friends are Hassan (Hayder Helo), Tarek (Basim Hajar) and Bassem (Bassem Fayad), fellow filmmakers and kindred spirits, spread from Beirut to Baghdad to Berlin. They swap stories about their current cities and the cities that have come before, lamenting the violence, turmoil and fear that have become commonplace. They eventually decide to film their cities on their own and send the footage to Khalid.
A persistent radio voice lends context to the filmmakers’ frustrations. “Last Days of the City” is set in December 2009, and Cairo is in a place of transition. The radio voice describes the comings and goings of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and throughout the city, protests and skirmishes highlight the tensions among the people — specifically among the city’s Islamic population.
At one point, Khalid gets on an elevator, and as he ascends to his floor, we see that someone has plastered the shaft with a continuous sequence of bumper stickers that all read, “Thou shalt not look at women.”
The women in Khalid’s life include his mother (Zeinab Mostafa), who has become hospitalized in her old age, and Laila (Laila Samy), an old flame who hasn’t quite left Khalid’s life. As Khalid encounters Laila throughout the film, and as we see brief flashbacks played through Khalid’s raw footage, we sense a deep pain that may be contributing to, if not causing, his artistic struggles.
Throughout “Last Days of the City,” El Said weaves Khalid’s raw footage in and out of scenes set in the “real world,” blurring the lines between the feature film and Khalid’s fictional project. There is no separation in style between the two sources, and each is saturated in heavy yellow-and-orange tones.
“Last Days of the City” is a moody film, only lightly guided by plot, and often more concerned with atmosphere than story. It seems El Said’s intent is to create a portrait of a city at a critical juncture, and his Cairo is a far cry from the bright and exciting “city of the living” Western audiences might have seen in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
As Khalid works to complete his film, “Last Days of the City” follows his journey to find meaning and understanding in his own life. We see this as he conducts various interviews, and we see the turmoil of Cairo through his artistic eye. El Said’s film might be a little more low-key than some audiences would prefer, but it is a thoughtful film.
“In the Last Days of the City” is not rated, but contains some brief R-rated language and some mild violence. It is presented in Arabic with English subtitles.
“In the Last Days of the City” is not rated; running time: 118 minutes.