Corruption is a disease that plagues societies all over the world, particularly when under the rule of a dictatorship. Such a regime forms the background for “The Nile Hilton Incident” a crime drama directed by Tarik Saleh. Set in pre-revolution Egypt in 2011, this Sundance winner is a scathing indictment of corruption, as uncovered in the aftermath of a murder.
That murder occurs early in the narrative, as a woman is found dead in a hotel room at the Nile Hilton. The subsequent investigation is lead by Noredin, a police officer determined to find the truth. His search is triggered by early clues, including a receipt for photos and a tip-off from a Sudanese worker named Salwa who witnessed the commotion.
As it turns out, these photos reveal a connection between the dead woman (a famous singer) and a powerful businessman/politician Hatem Shafiq. Initially dismissed as a crime of passion, Noredin’s probing soon uncovers an organized plot that may implicate a government already under heavy scrutiny. But with such powerful men involved, Noredin is dangerously exposed in his quest for justice, which may force him to resort to corrupt means himself. Meanwhile, Salwa gets involved in a bribe to protect herself, which leads her down a dangerous path of her own.
“You think you’re in Switzerland? There’s no justice here,” declares one character in the film, a statement which encapsulates writer-director Saleh’s point of view on this society. Indeed, while certain plot elements and locations will be familiar to fans of the crime genre, “The Nile Hilton Incident” stands out as an unrelentingly cynical view of Egypt. The corruption runs so deep here that there are no “black hats and white hats,” as everyone seems to benefit from the system to varying degrees.
Indeed, even the “hero” is corrupt, though he is clearly presented as our moral compass. In a blatant attempt to generate sympathy for the character, Saleh even gives us a one-off scene of Noredin taking care of his elderly father. Otherwise, Noredin is the typical anti-hero that TV and cinema has frequently churned in recent years. Thankfully, lead actor Fares Fares is up to the part, gripping us throughout with his dogged determination and genuine concern. Though the performance isn’t showy, there’s a mystery to the character’s morality that is constantly engaging. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the other roles, which are broadly written variations of well-worn archetypes (the beautiful prostitute with a heart of gold, the unscrupulous police chief, the vulnerable immigrant).
“The Nile Hilton Incident” makes little attempt to reinvent the crime genre, but it is captivating nonetheless. Its procedural elements move briskly along and there is a strong sense of time and place that gives the film a distinctive feel. Notably, there are intermittent news reports highlighting the atmosphere of civil unrest in preparation for the 2011 Egyptian revolution. So while the script has little more to say than “corruption is bad,” Saleh smartly infuses the film with the righteous fury of its political context. And though it could have been even further integrated into the main storyline, it sufficiently elevates this otherwise run-of-the-mill crime fare into something with a strong worldview and compelling social relevance.
“The Nile Hilton Incident” opens in select theaters August 11.