Sometimes a movie can be so inward-looking it threatens to vanish inside its own navel. That may be the case with Luxor, a movie about a physician who has been emotionally scarred by serving in a Syrian war zone.
Luxor is one of those movies in which setting, performance, and atmosphere far outweigh anything that might be considered a plot.
Andrea Riseborough plays Hana, a doctor who has chosen to take a bit of R&R in a city whose main tourist attraction consists of ancient tombs and temples, sobering reminders of lost civilizations.
Director Zeina Durra builds her movie around Riseborough, who conveys deep spiritual fatigue, delivering a solitary aria of self-imposed isolation.
The film's main interaction brings Hana into a chance reunion with Sultan (Karim Saleh), a Yale-based archaeologist who's doing a stint in Luxor.
Durra hints that Hana may have wanted to see Sultan and we feel as though their relationship once involved a deeper connection than what we're now seeing.
But what are we seeing?
Hana does touristy things. She has a meaningless but regrettable sexual encounter. She comes to the aid of a woman who passes out while touring a temple. She wanders outside of the luxury hotel where she has taken up temporary residence. She has conversations, mostly initiated by others.
Durra makes intermittent use of music, but for the most part, Luxor feels encased in tomb-like quiet with Hana attempting to touch a long-vanished past.
Clearly, Hana needs some kind of rebirth before traveling to her next assignment in Yemen.
A man of generous spirit, Sultan provides a strong contrast with Hana. Significantly, his memory hasn't been marred as has Hana's. It's as if she's depriving herself of the sensory input that triggers memory, perhaps because for Hana the act of remembering means recalling scenes of unspeakable horror.
Honesty compels me to say that I didn't quite know what to make of Luxor. Durra and her cast make the movie seem entirely believable as a portrait of westerners in an Arab country but, for me, its purpose never comes clearly into focus.
It's possible that Luxor springs from an unresolvable contradiction: It asks us to involve ourselves with a person who’s — at least — temporarily lost her taste for involvement.