BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 01 DEC 20

In Zeina Durra’s ‘Luxor’, History Shifts Shape

The film proposes Ancient Egypt as something far more alive than its ruins might suggest

 

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BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 01 DEC 20

2020 is a year in which solitude has – literally – been a lifesaver. It’s a state to which Hana, the lodestar of Zeina Durra’s gorgeous, moody new film, Luxor, is no stranger. Played with exquisite restraint by Andrea Riseborough, Hana is almost as damaged as the Egyptian ruins she wanders through. 

The film opens with the view from a boat, drifting down the Nile to a soundtrack of crickets and the lapping of water. We pass distant hills and palm trees; it could be dawn or the end of the day, 50 years ago or the near future. Time, in such a place, is vague; nature dwarfs, as it always does, the petty machinations of humans.

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Zeina Durra, Luxor, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Then, in a blink, we’re in the back of a cab in the present day. The traffic is cacophonous and a 1940s love song by the legendary Syrian singer Asmahan blares from the radio. In her dusty pink shirt, Hana seems cocooned by silence: she observes the passing parade with detachment. A soft-voiced, introspective woman – who, in her words, has ‘seen things no-one should see’ in the course of her work as a doctor on the Jordanian / Syrian border – Hana has come to the faded grandeur of the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor to recuperate from horrors we are not privy to. Thin, intense, exhausted, she falls asleep with the abruptness of a narcoleptic and, when she wakes, drapes her limbs in trousers and long shirts, like loose armour. She has problems with her memory and often gazes into space; at times, she touches ancient walls inscribed with hieroglyphics as if she needs something solid to lean on – or, perhaps, a new language with which to understand the world. She goes to bed with a loud American and then hides from him in a corridor; she visits temples and sips lemonade at bars; in the one scene where she drinks alcohol, she dances like an unhinged ballerina before collapsing in wild tears. The landscape she travels through is as bleached as a bone; occasionally, Hana’s translucent skin seems to dissolve in the hot white light and she herself becomes ghostly. With the most economical of gestures, Riseborough conveys Hana’s sorrow: a doctor is meant to heal, but how, she seems to ask, are we to cure such a sick world? 

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Zeina Durra, Luxor, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Luxor is a city built on an ancient site; aptly, the film is a study of time as much as place. Hana’s life is in flux – and not just spiritually. She travels constantly: in taxis, on boats, walking. She sounds English, speaks Arabic and might go to work in Yemen; nothing is certain. Before long, she runs into an old boyfriend, Sultan (Karim Saleh). Appropriately, he’s an archaeologist – an expert in digging up the past. They haven’t seen each other for 20 years, but their love for one another is the least subtle thing in the film: it blazes, despite their frequent silences. Sultan rolls a joint ‘for old time’s sake’; Hana replies wryly, ‘as if that ever got us anywhere’. They swim, laugh and roam the corridors of the Winter Palace Hotel while Sultan laments its proposed renovation. Hana lightly mocks his concern; her need for something fresh and new is clear, even as she is drawn to the past. She visits Sultan’s dig and asks him if he ever worries about opening up places that have been laid to rest. The famous archaeologist Salima Ikram, who plays herself, shows Hana a shabti: a figurine ‘supposed to help you in the afterlife’. Hana asks her if she’s aware of an energy in these ancient sites. Salima replies: ‘You’re walking in places that have thousands of years of really intense human emotion and they’ve imbued the space with this power and presence.’ 

With great delicacy, Luxor proposes history as something far more alive than its dusty bones might suggest; a shape-shifter that can’t help but mingle with the flimsy politics of the here and now. Translations and mistranslations abound, and not just from Arabic to English. A question hovers: how to interpret the contemporary moment, a time as unstable as the deck of a ship in a high storm? Hana and Sultan sit by the Nile and, without naming him, she quotes the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who, while incarcerated in 1929, wrote of the ascendant Italian fascist regime: ‘The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.’ We know, without being told, that she has seen more than her fair share of them. 

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Zeina Durra, Luxor, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Samuel Goldwyn Films

At one point, Hana tells Sultan that she had forgotten how pregnant the atmosphere of the temples can be. He lightly rebuffs her, advising her that spirits are nothing to be scared of. ‘Just tell them to leave you alone,’ he says. With a single look, Hana’s response is clear: easier said than done.

Main image: Luxor Temple, 2013. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Higgie is editor-at-large of frieze, based in London, UK. She is the host of frieze’s first podcast, Bow Down: Women in Art History. Her book The Mirror and the Palette is forthcoming from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
 

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