Sundance 2020: “Luxor” Gets Lost In Translation

Luxor Courtesy: Sundance Institute

A solid first half and great work from Andrea Riseborough aren’t quite enough to make up for Zeina Durra’s Egyptian indie.

Having spent time treating victims of the war in Syria, it would seem as if Hana (Andrea Riseborough) has given all of her life to others. She’s something of a ghost now, and upon going on leave for a while, she does what any specter would do: she haunts. In particular, she haunts the streets of Luxor. She lived there a few years prior and, be it spiritual or mental healing, is looking for a week to recharge. What feels like a Greek choir of whispers arises as she visits the tombs and ruins, and it’s enough to make up for the more unmotivated choices.

That is, for a while. Luxor, Zeina Durra’s sophomore effort, of course isn’t actually a ghost story, but it works when it does because she approaches it like one. There’s a crypt of memories to open, silences that play like music. The conflation of the mental and the spiritual blur until they’re one and the same. It’s 85 minutes too! But what starts as something subtle shows itself—and its protagonist—to be much more traditional, lessening what’s on its mind as a result.

She understands the culture. She has a few friends in the area and she knows some of the locals. This all works well, her worldliness that Riseborough plays with ease. And then she starts to get on with an old friend of hers, an archeologist named Sultan (Karim Saleh). He makes a notice of it being “just like the old days” in a way the movie treats refreshingly identical to how an old pal says elsewhere in the movie, and it seems as if their relationship is going to stay strictly platonic.

[Riseborough] is keen on posture and reactions throughout, her eyes falling and rising differently with each interaction. It’s a deeply empathic performance in an otherwise undercooked feature.

Yet it’s halfway through when Luxor takes away the ambiguity. Hana, despite her individualism, yearns to revisit what used to be a long-distance relationship between the two. And yet without Riseborough, Durra’s picture wouldn’t have worked as much as it does. There are references to Freudian psychology and Middle-Eastern philosophy, but these ideas play more like wallpaper than an insight into the character’s shifts. Those live and die on its lead.

But at least the movie knows it to an extent. There’s a point where Sultan says of the city, “There’s something lovely about it being so faded and imperfect.” The camera holds the camera on Riseborough as her expression glazes over, and it’s at that moment that Luxor realizes how much it plumbs from her instead of itself. The actor is keen on posture and reactions throughout, her eyes falling and rising differently with each interaction. It’s a deeply empathic performance in an otherwise undercooked feature.

That isn’t to call Durra’s script pretentious. It’s simply stretched out. Its episodic structure would have worked better without title cards that cap off each sequence and the scenes that go the longest, unfortunately, focus in part on Sultan. Salah does decent work here, but he isn’t enough to wring enough out from a fundamentally generic role.

Maybe that disinterest is on purpose; maybe anyone aside from Hana is meant to feel like a shadow of a shadow. That isn’t how it shakes out, however. The push-pull between the internal and the exterior plants its seeds throughout, but even at 85 minutes, it’s too thinly stretched to work.

Luxor is playing in the World Drama category of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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