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‘Luxor’ Is a Luxurious and Subtle Study in Healing

December 4, 2020
2 min read time

Post-traumatic stress disorder is not something easily portrayed onscreen. It presents itself in different ways  a sneaky ailment that can come and go, and live in the shadows of those it haunts, striking at the most unexpected moments. Luxor tells the tale of Hana (Andrea Riseborough), a doctor on a break from serving at the Syrian border. Hana states to ex-lover Sultan (Karim Saleh) in the film: “I’ve seen things nobody should see.”

Despite this dark admission, Luxor is not really a dark film at all. It’s instead a study in healing. It’s a bit like a meditation, or a tone poem of one woman’s journey to connect to herself again — to allow herself to remember a time of pleasure in her life. And maybe, above all else, it’s a tribute to Luxor, Egypt and its unexpected warmth and mystery.

Writer-director Zeina Durra wanted to ensure her audience felt the same warmth she does for the place, a land her father stems from.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that Egypt or the Middle East in general is dangerous. I believe now most of the world is the same. Something could happen to you in the middle of Times Square. But the Middle East is less black and white.”

Durra felt Luxor was the perfect location to represent Hana’s layered journey dealing with her trauma.

“I wanted to use the different layers Luxor has to offer (the Winter Palace, the colonial past, the Egyptian royal family before they were deposed, the modern Arab city mixed with the ancient) … It was important because I am interested in telling a story through showing things. Things that people might not understand immediately, but they understand in visual language.”

It is quickly clear Hana is unsettled and her journey to Luxor is driven by an urging searching quality. As the layers of the city are revealed to the audience through trips to ancient temples, hieroglyphs, gardens, and beautiful outdoor meals (one can almost feel the warmth of the place through the screen) so too are Hana’s layers slowly peeled back as she allows herself to, little by little, be vulnerable again  not only in her own presence but also in the presence of her former lover Sultan, an archaeologist who provided Hana with just as much patience as he does his digs.

The plot device on which Durra hangs Hana’s hat is the idea of the almost mythical city of Abydos (a holy site known as the burial place of many dynastic kings). Many throughout Hana’s journey suggest the place as the most healing location she could visit.

Durra said the idea of the city is achieved “when Hana reaches a different plane, a new development in her character. She has moved onto the next phase of her life.”

Hana has many pit stops before she can reach Abydos. She visits a healer who performs a ritual that is unclear if successful. She takes in the hieroglyphs of baby Horus and Isis. Durra stated that Hana is facing a choice  will she pursue a more domestic life with children, and is this trip her final chance at that kind of life? Patient Sultan is always ready to accommodate Hana’s whims, making the option that much more tempting.

Perhaps Durra stumbled upon a happy accident at the eventual profundity of Hana’s journey. Durra desperately wanted to shoot in Abydos but the trip proved impossible for the production’s shooting schedule, and the crew never made it (neither did Hana, in the physical sense). But that’s what’s so lovely about the film; Hana didn’t need to get to Abydos. She just needed to allow herself the opportunity to go.

When Hana finally accepts the idea of a trip to Abydos with Sultan, she’s allowing herself a moment to be fully vulnerable. She’s accepted she deserves the sacred journey, and if not now, when? With Abydos now finally on the horizon, Hana has the freedom to dream again. Maybe she’ll also soon remember the good as well as the immediate bad because life should allow for a journey to the warmth of glowing Egypt, especially after stepping away from the dark. As Durra simply stated: “no one can fix you, you have to do it yourself.”

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