Ten years after Zeina Durra launched her well-regarded debut “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” at Sundance, the London-born director returns with a mature meditation on the effects of trauma shrewdly incarnated by the always welcome Andrea Riseborough. “Luxor,” set in the eponymous Egyptian city of ancient temples, is a slow-burning, accessibly elliptical story in which a doctor pauses from war-zone duty and returns to a beloved place, looking back at the past, uncertain of the future and searching for meaning in the present. The feel is very much American indie, which suggests moderate art-house potential in the States.
Riseborough’s name will be an essential selling point (CAA is handling domestic rights), given the general lack of traction surrounding movies from the Middle East; it would be nice to think “Luxor” could open more international doors for regional fare, though that’s likely wishful thinking. Durra keeps the themes universal, including recapturing lost love of both a person and a métier, and while the setting is one of the world’s key tourist destinations, she shows its beauty without Orientalizing — this is a galaxy away from the ridiculous 1981 “Sphinx” shot in some of the same locales.
When Hana (Riseborough) arrives at the storied Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor, she seems both familiar with and alienated from her environment. Dressed perpetually in oversized shirts and baggy trousers, as if wanting to negate her body and disappear inside the ill-fitting clothes, she prefers not to interact with fellow guests, though sleeping with a loud-mouthed American fulfills a certain need and is something of a masochistic act. She’s arrived for an indefinite stay from the Jordanian-Syrian border where she’s been working in a war trauma unit, and while she doesn’t go into details — the film smartly relies on the silent emotional depths of its performers rather than lengthy exegesis — it’s clear she’s witnessed horrors that won’t leave her head.
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By chance she bumps into Sultan (Karim Saleh), an archeologist she knew from the past with whom she once had a relationship. “I didn’t think you were here,” she awkwardly says, revealing in her discomfort just how meaningful this relationship was, and how much her subconscious had hoped they would meet. His surprise at seeing Hana has also clearly shaken him up, but he understands he needs to tread lightly since she’s in a dark place and isn’t remembering much. Perhaps it’s this memory loss that accounts for the way she seems to be a novice when Sultan takes her to his latest dig in the Valley of the Kings, even though she spent some time about 20 years earlier on similar sites (her unfamiliarity is more likely to be a minor script flaw).
Sultan’s sensitivity is like a life preserver, but it also exposes her vulnerability, making her look back at might-have-beens while forcing her to confront the future — she’s wanted in Yemen, but doesn’t know if she can handle another war zone. “I’m broken. I can’t take any more pain,” she tells him in understated lines movingly spoken by Riseborough, who cannily knows how to convey suppressed emotions through glances, body language and minimalist line delivery. The film plays with the headiness of the ancient past, so vivid in Luxor and environs, using it as a counterbalance to the oppressiveness of Hana’s barely spoken trauma. What’s ancient offers succor, a recognition of something greater than ourselves, something mystical.
Durra acknowledges the draw for New Agers in a scene involving Angie (Janie Aziz) a spirituality tour organizer and her group, but while the film treats them with respect, it’s not suggesting Hana is part of that circle but rather that the place engenders various types of communion. The stars painted on the roof of a tomb have an echo in the starry Nilotic sky, offering comfort in continuity.
As in her earlier film, Durra counters stereotypes of the Arab world by privileging normal everyday interactions, like those between Hana and Dunia (Shereen Reda), and she’s not interested in showing the severe economic crisis that’s plagued Luxor since the decline in tourism. Influenced by the time she spent with noted Egyptologist Salima Ikram, making a small appearance in the film as basically herself, Durra delicately balances these different elements, though an unnecessary use of titled chapter breaks doesn’t really help with construction in a film that’s already pleasingly enigmatic.
Minor characters, some dubbed, can be awkward, but the leads have enough subtle power that it really doesn’t matter. Saleh has a solid résumé in international productions including TV, and he’s well-paired with Riseborough in the way he exudes a gentle solidity that Hana needs yet also partly resists, unsure if she can cope with any more emotional attachments. Camerawork by Zelmira Gainza is respectfully discreet, supple in the way it moves through space and around characters, knowing when to maintain a distance. Using the great singer Asmahan’s “Ya Habibi Taala” to open and close the film was inspired.