Some stories never get old; they merely become relevant for new reasons. The Nile Hilton Incident, a noirish story of cops, class, and corruption, could have been set in New York in the ‘40s, London in the ‘70s, or Russia today. But instead, it’s set in Cairo in January 2011, playing off against the early uprisings that would ultimately become known as the Arab Spring. It’s a fiery juxtaposition to make, especially in times of increasing unrest even in first-world countries, and it makes for a more powerful story.
The setup of The Nile Hilton Incident is almost bog-standard for cop thrillers: a prostitute is found dead in the swanky Cairo Hilton, and world-weary police colonel Noredin Mustafa is called to investigate. But where the investigation goes from there is far from conventional, as Noredin’s path is strewn with obstacles - from within the police system as well as from without.
Swedish-Egyptian writer/director Tarik Saleh (Metropia, Tommy) paints a bleak picture of corruption in this, his third narrative feature. From front to back, the police force surrounding Noredin is depicted as irrelevant, dysfunctional, and undeserving of respect. The people hate them; they hate each other; they hate themselves. Money changes hands at every level of police action - to avoid investigations, to hurry them along, or simply as a matter of course. It’s an institution where the rot has been allowed to set in; where one must concede to and take part in the corruption in order to get anything done.
Things get worse when Noredin’s investigation is unceremoniously closed, just as he’s starting to find clues on the trail to the killer. Shut down by a state prosecutor whose payoff never even has to be mentioned, Noredin nevertheless continues to pursue a case that implicates a wealthy businessman who also happens to be a member of Parliament. The notion of a corrupt and criminal government stemming from a sleazy construction baron hits close to home here in January 2017, and in The Nile Hilton Incident, the resultant web of corruption spreads wide.
Noredin’s descent into frustrated rage at a criminal system is where Saleh makes his big statements. Noredin is unable to work without being caught up in a blackmail plot himself; his superiors constantly try to shut him down; other government departments and jurisdictions attempt to intimidate him into submission. Fares Fares’ performance as Noredin is the very picture of a world-weary film noir cop - living alone, smoking, drinking, scowling, and remembering a dead wife - and his frustration at the hands of every official he encounters is palpable, aided by strong and oppressive sound design.
Another thread weaving through The Nile Hilton Incident is that of the treatment of immigrants. The only witness to the murder is Salwa, a Sudanese immigrant and hotel maid, whose attempts to evade assassination form the film’s B-plot. The constant cuts back to Salwa and her kin are ominous as hell, given the criminal nature even of law enforcement itself, and sure enough, she’s being hunted. But it’s not just that: the hotel pays her in cash, with zero paper trail, while cops treat her and her fellow immigrants as trash. They’re considered second-class citizens, exploited by businesses then discarded as expendable when they prove a nuisance. Racism is entrenched into the system, because it helps that system work. Sound familiar?
That’s the ultimate message of The Nile Hilton Incident: corruption breeds further corruption. Crime breeds further crime. There seems no limit to how deep the well runs, because there is no limit to it. Corruption infects everything. As the film reaches its bleak, desolate, lonely ending, it almost precisely evokes the moody imagery of the ending of Chinatown. Nothing’s truly resolved, and as the people riot in the streets, questions remain as to whether the corrupt individuals at the heart of the film’s conspiracy will be - or can be - brought to justice. How do you use a system to punish criminals when those criminals work in that system? Violent overthrow certainly isn’t guaranteed to work, but sometimes it seems like the only way to do it.