How does one even start to take on an event as big, complicated and sprawling as the Arab Spring in narrative form? If you’re writer/director Tarik Saleh, you start with an engrossing detective story in “The Nile Hilton Incident,” set in the weeks leading up to the revolution in Egypt as a policeman’s investigation touches on the systemic corruption at every level that has inspired people to revolt.
The energy crackles in Cairo well before demonstrators take to the streets in “The Nile Hilton Incident,” as Saleh finds quite the ruckus one night inside a penthouse at one of the city’s toniest hotels. The body of a pop singer named Lalena is found on the premises the next morning with Major Noredin (Fares Fares) assigned to the case, as his superiors think little will come of it. However, Noredin finds a roll of film at the crime scene that he takes to get developed and unbeknownst to him, there was a witness – a Sudanese maid named Salwa (Mari Malek), who figures out the man she saw leaving the premises was Hatem Shafiq (Ahmed Selim), one of the region’s most prominent real estate developers and a close friend of President Hosni Mubarak. The two leads eventually put Noredin in an untenable situation, unable to trust anyone in his own department since they serve at the pleasure of the president and drawn into the circle of Shafiq, who is impressed by his willingness to confront him with such charges and asks him to clear his name by finding the real killer.
There isn’t a great amount of intrigue in who killed Lalena, but rather whether anyone will have the gumption to acknowledge who did as Saleh uses one death to illustrate the thousands of tiny moral compromises that will result in her never receiving justice. Needing to grease palms with other cops in order to use an interrogation room in a precinct that’s not his own and disseminating false information to see where it leads, Noredin, as played by a brilliantly poker-faced Fares, navigates a political mine field well before those with actual weapons start coming for him. Saleh does well to structure Noredin’s investigation to take in the whole of Egyptian society, from a cab ride where the driver complains of not making enough to afford cigarettes to their destination of Shafiq’s palatial compound where there seems to be no limit to his affluence.
“The Nile Hilton Incident” has all the staples of your typical gumshoe yarn – a femme fatale in the form of Lalena’s friend Gina (Hania Amar) and double-crosses left and right – but it’s enriched by its cultural specificity and by the time the film approaches a climax in Tahrir Square, Saleh magnificently equates the individual and societal stakes of Nordein’s case to pack an incredible punch. The rare politically provocative potboiler that doesn’t skimp on the thrills, “The Nile Hilton Incident” has an infectious energy about it that is as likely to infuriate as it is to entertain, a film that may begin with a police investigation and ends in a lot of soul searching.