As the title suggests, “In the Last Days of the City” is an elegy, a melancholic love-hate poem to Cairo and the role of filmmakers in any city in pain. A long-gestating project that was initially shot in 2009, the film represents a self-reflexive expression, by debuting features helmer Tamer El Said, of profound weight and intricate sadness, grappling with loss in myriad forms through separation, death, politics and ineluctable decay. Largely fiction with nonfiction elements, “Last Days” benefits from time: Most instant responses to the Revolution now seem hopelessly dated, but Said’s work, lensed before the uprising, takes full, intelligent advantage of hindsight. It’s a natural fest item, with chances for targeted arthouse play.
Filmmaker Khalid (Khalid Abdalla) may be the lead role, but the real protag is Cairo itself, specifically Downtown, a district lived on the streets. It’s an area of faded splendor caked with a century of dust and sand, characterized by overwhelming bustle: Its noise and hubbub merge with an unmatchable cafe culture, and its residents hear a siren song in the cacophony. Khalid needs to move apartments, but the number of unsuitable places his real-estate agent (Mohamed Gaber) shows leaves him frustrated, and the timing is lousy since his mother (Zeinab Mostafa) is in the hospital and his love Laila (Laila Samy) is leaving Egypt.
He’s trying to make a documentary, but can’t decide what direction to take. Aside from personal issues, there’s the psychological impact of the country itself, teetering in the final years of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In addition, Khalid is engrossed by discussions with filmmaker colleagues visiting for a panel: Bassem (Bassem Fayad) from Beirut, Hassan (Hayder Helo) from Baghdad, and Tarek (Basim Hajar), also from Baghdad but now a resident of Berlin. The three men talk and argue about how their cities alternately feed and crush their souls, while Khalid tries to get a grip on what it is he wants to say about Cairo.
Unlike Bassem, too emotionally paralyzed by Beirut’s scars to film it, Khalid keeps shooting, though even his editor (Islam Kamal) finally throws his hands up and asks what the film is meant to be about. There’s Hanan (Hanan Yousef), an acting teacher whose wistful internalized memories of childhood in Alexandria reveal themselves through her wonderfully expressive face; Maryam (Maryam Saleh), a woman harboring traumas (her character is weakly integrated); his mother; a colleague (Fadila Tawfik) of his late father’s; and, of course, Cairo.
The result is a city requiem rather than a city symphony, a plangent, multi-layered dirge to the sensory overload of the capital, and as such will be best appreciated by those who know the city. In the film, it’s a metropolis offering up its last hurrah: Workers’ strikes alternate with Islamist marches, and everywhere seems marked by the creeping spread of fundamentalism. At the end of their panel, Hassan says Cairo creates these sorts of moments, meaning it provides a forum for progressive pan-Arab dialogue. Yet part of the movie’s significance comes from the enormously powerful realization that the city today, strangled by a dictatorship far worse than Mubarak’s, is no longer that place.
It’s this hindsight that adds such a potent subtext to “In the Last Days of the City,” which itself is a palimpsest by which we see the Cairo that was through our understanding of what Cairo has become. Every time Khalid gets into a cab, he hears news items in which propaganda stories of Mubarak’s successes jostle with cheerleader pieces on Egypt’s participation in the Africa Cup (soccer is the favored bread-and-circuses distraction for dictators). The film, like Khalid, like all the characters, is both experiencing these moments and is also haunted by them.
Loss suffuses each layer, and while some are better balanced than others, the overall mood leaves a lasting impression, making this one of the most tangible expressions of that tug-of-war between longing for a city that’s completely a part of you, and realizing that leaving may be the only way to preserve that feeling. The lost love between Laila and Khalid doesn’t satisfy as a subtheme, and many will direct the editor’s complaint at “Last Days” itself (which surely is why Said includes the scene). But as demolition workers break down an apartment building and tear up abandoned photographs, sensitized viewers will share the pangs of sadness, recognizing that an era has been crushed.
Said and co-scripter Rasha Salti gave the pic a blueprint, which at a certain point must have resembled a coat stand, with multiple, shifting strands hanging from the central pole. Editing all the footage (more than 250 hours) was a monumental task that largely manages to nimbly carry the diverse elements, though the real achievement is how the film captures and holds a mood that develops and expands, with a yearning for what was and what might have been.
Sound design is a key element, with passages of dialogue layered over shots in which people aren’t seen speaking, or have just spoken. This approach allows Said to concentrate on faces that often convey enough emotion on their own, reinforcing Hanan’s implication that words inadequately communicate emotional depth: For that, there are images. Music is used sparingly, and in a non-manipulative way.